June 17, 1812: Congress Declares War on Great Britain

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the declaration of war passed by Congress on June 17, 1812, starting the War of 1812.  I think it is safe to say that rarely has the United States gone to war more ill-prepared than in 1812, with an Army of 7,000 men and a Navy with 12 combat vessels, which is odd considering that there was no precipitating crisis that mandated a declaration of war at the time.  The United States could have prepared for the conflict and then declared war, but no such pre-war preparation occurred.

The vote totals in Congress, in the House 79-49 and in the Senate 19-13, indicated that the war was largely at the desire of one political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, and opposed by the Federalists.  The opposition of the Federalists would continue throughout the war, and the conflict would be bitterly divisive in the United States.

The whole undertaking has a fairly surreal quality in retrospect, with the Madison administration, propelled by the War Hawks in Congress, undertaking a war that the President himself thought unwise and ill-considered against the mightiest Empire in the world.

Here is the text of the war message sent by President Madison on June 1, and which served as the basis for the declaration of war: (more…)

Published in: on June 17, 2020 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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February 7, 1813: Raid on Elizabethtown

Benjamin Forsyth

One of the more daring American raids in the War of 1812 occurred on the evening of February 6-7, 1813.  On February 4, 1813 a detachment of British soldiers had crossed the frozen Saint Lawrence and attacked Ogdensburg, New York.  They recrossed the Saint Lawrence with American prisoners.  Major Benjamin Forsyth, a resourceful officer of the First American Rifle Regiment had no intention of letting this British raid go unanswered.  At 10:00 PM on February 6, he led 200 regulars and volunteers from Ogdensburg on a twelve-mile march through bitter cold to Morristown, New York. (more…)

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January 9, 1815: Report to Monroe

Battle of New Orleans 2

 

The day after the battle of New Orleans, Jackson wrote his report to James Monroe, Secretary of War.:

Sir: 9th Jan: 1815

During the days of the 6th. & 7th. the enemy had been actively employed in making preparations for an attack on my lines. With infinite labour they had succeeded on the night of the 7th in getting their boats across from the lake to the river, by widening & deepening the Canal on which they had effected their disembarkation. It had not been in my power to impede these operations by a general attack: Added to other reasons, the nature of the troops under my command, mostly militia, rendered it too hazardous to attempt extensive offensive movements in an open Country, against a numerous & well disciplined army.- Altho my forces, as to number, had been increased by the arrival of the Kentucky division – my strength had received very little addition; a small portion only of that detachment being provided with arms: Compelled thus to wait the attack of the enemy I took every measure to repell it when it would be made, & to defeat the object he had in view. Genl. Morgan with the Orleans Contingent the Louisiana Militia, & a strong detachment of the Kentucky troops occupy an entrenched Camp, on the opposite side of the river, protected by strong batteries on the bank erected & superintended by Commodore Patterson.

In my encampment every thing was ready for action, when early on the morning of the 8th the enemy, after throwing a heavy shower of bombs & congreve rockets, advanced their columns on my right & left, to storm my entrenchments. I cannot speak sufficiently in praise of the firmness & deliberation with which my whole line received their approach:-more could not have been expected from veterans, inured to war. For an hour the fire of the small arms was as incessant & severe as can be imagined. The artillery too, directed by officers who displayed equal skill & courage did great execution. Yet the columns of the enemy continued to advance with a firmness which reflects upon them the greatest credit. Twice the column which approached me on my left was repulsed by the troops of genl. Carrole – those of genl. Coffee, & a division of the Kentucky Militia, & twice they formed again & renewed the assault. (more…)

Published in: on January 9, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on January 9, 1815: Report to Monroe  
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Hiram Cronk: Last American Veteran of the War of 1812

The above video is of the funeral in 1905 of Hiram Cronk, last surviving veteran of the War of 1812.  On August 4, 1814 at the age of 14, Cronk enlisted with his father and two brothers in the New York Volunteers.  He participated in the defense of Sackets Harbor.  He was mustered out on November 16, 1814.  Cronk worked as a shoemaker and he and his wife had seven children.  At the time of his funeral 25,000 people came out to pay their respects to him, the last link with what some have called our Second War for Independence.

Published in: on November 6, 2019 at 5:22 am  Comments Off on Hiram Cronk: Last American Veteran of the War of 1812  
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August 16, 1812: Surrender of Detroit

 

 

One of the more humiliating defeats in US military history, the surrender of Detroit on August 16, 1812 got the War of 1812 off to a disastrous start for the United States.  After his abortive attempt to invade Canada, read about it here,  With the British seizure of Mackinac Island on Lake Huron on July 17, Hull, fearing that his supply lines would be cut by the Indian allies of the British, fell back to Fort Detroit.

Major General Isaac Brock, commander of the British forces in Canada, took the initiative and launched an attack on Fort Detroit with his miniscule force of 400 regulars, 300 militia and 600 Indians.  He was aided in his attack on Fort Detroit by the sloop Queen Charlotte and the brig General Hunter.

The “siege” of Detroit opened on August 15, with both a land and sea artillery bombardment of the Fort.  Brock sent a demand for surrender to Hull which had the implicit threat of a massacre if surrender did not occur:  The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences… (more…)

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The General Armstrong

 

Britannia certainly ruled the waves in 1814.  Everyone knew that, except, perhaps, the mad Americans.  Their navy, insignificant in numbers compared to the Royal Navy, had put up quite a fight during the War of 1812 and won a series of ship to ship duels that had injured the pride of the British nation.  Their privateers had damaged British commerce by hunting British merchantmen throughout the Seven Seas.  Therefore, it can come as little surprise to learn that when Captain Lloyd of the Royal Navy led a squadron into the port of Fayal in the Azores on September 26, 1814 he immediately commenced combat operations when he spotted an American privateer, The General Armstrong,  a schooner of 14 guns, also in the port, even though the port was controlled by a neutral power, Portugal.

Although vastly outnumbered by the English squadron, Captain Samuel Reid, the skipper of The General Armstrong, had no intention of giving up without a fight.  The British initially attempted to seize the schooner with four boats filled with Marines and sailors.  Reid opened fire with his guns and drove them off.  The British tried again after dark.  Around midnight the British sent 12 large barges with mounted cannon and filled with 400 men against the schooner.  The British reached the schooner, shouted “No quarter” and boarded her.  The heavily outnumbered Americans fought back ferociously, beating off the attack  and killing most of the attackers.

The next morning the British began to attack the schooner with long range gunnery.  Still The General Armstrong fought on, holding its own in this lop-sided contest.  Ultimately the Americans scuttled The General Armstrong and escaped on shore.  Few injuries to the pride of the Royal Navy were greater than this contest with one American privateer. (more…)

Published in: on June 26, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The General Armstrong  
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Winfield Scott and the Irish Pows

colonel winfield-scott

Winfield Scott, the most notable American general between the American Revolution and the Civil War, began his climb to becoming a general at 27 by the heroism he displayed as a Lieutenant Colonel at the battle of Queenston Heights on October 11, 1812.  An American defeat, Scott was among the 955 Americans captured.

The British at this time did not recognize the right of any British subject to change his nationality.  Such a subject, captured fighting in a foreign army, was considered by the British to be a traitor and liable to summary execution, sometimes being given the opportunity to avoid death by enlisting in the British Army.

At first the American captives were treated rather well.  Scott was even invited to dinner by British General Roger Sheaffe, who also protected the Americans from the Indian allies of the British.  Shipped to Quebec, the Americans were paroled and were due to leave via ship for Boston on November 20, 1812.  The day before a commission of British officers boarded the ship where Scott and his men were waiting to sail.  The British began questioning the American enlisted men.  If they detected an Irish brogue, the man was arrested as a traitor to the Crown.  Hearing the commotion this was causing, Scott rushed from below deck.  Defying an order from the British to go below, he ordered the men who had not been interrogated not to say another word.  To the 23 men who had been arrested, he promised the United States would protect them.  The men obeyed Scott and all refused to say a word.  The British eventually gave up and took the 23 men off the ship.  Scott and the remainder sailed for Boston on November 20.  Of the 23 men arrested by the British, 13 were executed. (more…)

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August 24, 1814: Burning of Washington

One of the more humiliating events in American history, the burning of Washington was the low point in American fortunes during the War of 1812.

 

After the British landed an army to attack Washington, Captain Johsua Barney, a Catholic and Revolutionary War hero, go here to read about him, and 500 of his sailors and marines, joined the American army seeking to stop the invaders.  At the battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, Barney and his men put up a spirited defense, with cutlasses and bayonets against the advancing British, and throughout it all Barney rallying his men with cries of “Board ‘em!  Board ‘em!” Ultimately the Americans retreated, and Barney, seriously wounded, was captured one last time in his career by the British.  After being paroled by his captors, he spent the rest of the War recuperating at his farm in Maryland.  The heroic stand of Barney and his men had given enough time for Washington to be evacuated, and after the war the grateful citizens of Washington presented a sword to the old sailor for the land fight which ended his naval career. (more…)

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Our Second War For Independence

 

And what a disastrous Second War for Independence the War of 1812 tended to be for the infant US with the major exception of the Battle of New Orleans fought after the treaty of peace was signed.  Theodore Roosevelt in his magisterial The Naval War of 1812, written when he was all of 23, understood this:

In spite of the last trifling success, the campaign had been to the British both bloody and disastrous. It did not affect the results of the war; and the decisive battle itself was a perfectly useless shedding of blood, for peace had been declared before it was fought. Nevertheless, it was not only glorious but profitable to the United States. Louisiana was saved from being severely ravaged, and New Orleans from possible destruction; and after our humiliating defeats in trying to repel the invasions of Virginia and Maryland, the signal victory of New Orleans was really almost a necessity for the preservation of the national honor. This campaign was the great event of the war, and in it was fought the most important battle as regards numbers that took place during the entire struggle; and the fact that we were victorious, not only saved our self-respect at home, but also gave us prestige abroad which we should otherwise have totally lacked. It could not be said to entirely balance the numerous defeats that we had elsewhere suffered on land—defeats which had so far only been offset by Harrison’s victory in 1813 and the campaign in Lower Canada in 1814—but it at any rate went a long way toward making the score even.

Jackson is certainly by all odds the most prominent figure that appeared during this war, and stands head and shoulders above any other commander, American or British, that it produced. It will be difficult, in all history, to show a parallel to the feat that he performed. In three weeks’ fighting, with a force largely composed of militia, he utterly defeated and drove away an army twice the size of his own, composed of veteran troops, and led by one of the ablest of European generals. During the whole campaign he only erred once, and that was in putting General Morgan, a very incompetent officer, in command of the forces on the west bank. He suited his movements admirably to the various exigencies that arose. The promptness and skill with which he attacked, as soon as he knew of the near approach of the British, undoubtedly saved the city; for their vanguard was so roughly handled that, instead of being able to advance at once, they were forced to delay three days, during which time Jackson entrenched himself in a position from which he was never driven. But after this attack the offensive would have been not only hazardous, but useless, and accordingly Jackson, adopting the mode of warfare which best suited the ground he was on and the troops he had under him, forced the enemy always to fight him where he was strongest, and confined himself strictly to the pure defensive—a system condemned by most European authorities, [Footnote: Thus Napier says (vol. v, p. 25): “Soult fared as most generals will who seek by extensive lines to supply the want of numbers or of hardiness in the troops. Against rude commanders and undisciplined soldiers, lines may avail; seldom against accomplished commanders, never when the assailants are the better soldiers.” And again (p. 150), “Offensive operations must be the basis of a good defensive system.”] but which has at times succeeded to admiration in America, as witness Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Kenesaw Mountain, and Franklin.

Published in: on May 31, 2018 at 5:13 am  Comments Off on Our Second War For Independence  
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January 7, 1815: Old Hickory and Our Lady of Prompt Succor

 

When one thinks of Andrew Jackson, Our Lady of Prompt Succor and the Ursuline nuns do not spring to mind, but they should. (more…)

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