The War of 1812 is a different event depending on the side involved. To the United States, it was the Second War of Independence, when they re-established their presence in the world by proving that they were more than a vassal of Britain. To Canada, it was a moment when they defended their homeland from an invader. It could be said that it helped to unite a nation. To Britain, it was a minor irritant during the Napoleonic Wars. To the native Indian tribes, this war was the end of their hopes of independence from the white settlers, helping to drive the final nails into the coffin that their civilization had become.
The direct cause of the War of 1812 involved perceived British mistreatment of the Americans, over two issues – forced impressment and economic blockade. One of the tools that Britain was using against Napoleon was a naval blockade of European ports. This blockade was not only against enemy powers, but also against shipping of neutrals, such as the United States. Understandably, the United States resented having Royal Naval vessels seize and search their vessels. There were even cases of American ships being fired upon by British vessels if they resisted. The international legality of a blockade was disputed, and led to resentment on the behalf of other neutral powers.
This question of a blockade can be seen as a clash of wills between two of the maritime powers of the world, arguably the two greatest at this time (although Britain had an obvious lead at this point.) The European blockade restricted the free trade that American merchants demanded. As Risjord put it, ‘(The Republicans thought) that the only alternative to war was submission to the British Commercial System.’1
The issue of impressment was just as important, perhaps even more so because it allowed for martyrs. Immigration to the USA was unrestricted, and there was little paperwork. For a dollar, it was possible to become a US citizen, regardless of prior background or commitments. It was possible for this system to be abused by deserting sailors, who would often head ashore at American ports, where a growing merchant marine provided them with higher pay and better conditions than those found on Royal Naval vessels. This would even happen during the War itself, as George Hay reflected, “I observed some of the men smile…(The Commodore said) they are deserters from the man-of-war in which you came to America.”2 At one point, it was estimated that ‘probably a quarter of the 50,000 to 100,000 seamen employed on American ships in this era were British’.3
As desertion was a crime, it was fairly common for RN vessels to ‘recruit’ at American ports, sending their press gangs ashore. Worse still, they would stop vessels flying the flag of the USA and take crewmen off that they suspected were deserters. The problem with this was that most of the people they picked up were American citizens, and it could be a year before these people were returned – many were forced to stayuntil the conclusion of hostilities. This caused resentment against the UK in the USA.
To be fair, the British government did make an attempt to resolve the disputes, but were unwilling to relax the restrictions on commerce that were helping them win their conflict with France. This conflict had not been a clash of armies, but of economies. The war had continued whilst the two sides had the strength to fight, and although there were plenty of battles during this conflict, the war would ultimately be won by the superior economy.
A shortage of sailors meant that they were desperate for recruits, and had to acquire them from anywhere they could. Deserters would rarely be punished by death, but would be brought back into the Navy. Naturally, both sides believed that they were in the right. In a way, Britain still saw the US in its colonial style, dependant on the assistance of the UK for its survival. This was certainly not true at this point; although it is certain that the US did have exaggerated views of its power and influence. It is a fact that the primary trading partner for the United States was the UK. Indeed, more trade took place after the War of Independence than before.
Over the late 1800’s and early 1810’s, matters deteriorated, with a long chain of events culminating in a declaration of war, ironically just before the British dispatch detailing a settlement that would have been acceptable to the United States arrived in Washington. This is one of the examples of communication lag that would play an factor in the war, especially at the battle of New Orleans.
To see the importance of the Great Lakes, it is necessary to look at the goals that both sides set themselves during the war. Britain was involved with the war against France, and was unconcerned with capturing any US territory. They simply wanted a status quo ante bellum, to restore the borders to what they were before the war. To this end, they would attempt to invade US territory, but with no interest in keeping it. Retaking the United States would not be realistic. The aims of the United States were more ambitious. They wished to secure Florida (the aim they managed to fulfil), and in the north, they wished to conquer Canada. To the British and Canadians, it was a war for control of the vast fur trade areas of the Northwest.4
It was thought that capturing Canada would be simple. The United States government assumed that their army, bolstered by militia units, would be sufficient to capture the populated areas of Canada. They hoped that this would be accompanied by an uprising against British rule a viewpoint that was incredibly naïve. The French settlers had little interest in becoming part of the United States, as many of them had left France to avoid a republic, and the English settlers had mostly emigrated from the United States during the Revolution because they were loyal to the British Crown – many had fought against the United States in that war.
The war can be neatly divided into two – the naval war, and the land war. The naval war was fought in both major oceans of the world, but without any major naval action. Individual battles were fought, but the War of 1812 had no Trafalgar. The US Navy, being far smaller than the Royal Navy (which had three naval guns for every American fighting ship5), adopted a technique of commerce raiding that had proven to be effective in previous wars. (In fact, in 1812 the Royal Navy had nearly 700 warships at sea, while the US Navy had only 17 seagoing vessels and 165 gunboats.6) They were successful in this, managing to cause severe disruption to British trade in the Atlantic, and whaling operations in the Pacific. The question must be asked whether they would have had such success if the Royal Navy had not been tied up with France, but the fact of their achievement remains. Also, the US ships, although numerically inferior, were superior to their British counterparts, which caused embarrassment to British naval designers of the period, and brought about questions in the House.
The land war was another question entirely. The lack of preparation of both sides made itself felt, but the superiority of the British in the region became obvious after a string of American defeats followed the inability of the US Army to successfully invade Canada. Never was this more evident than when British forces successfully captured Washington, and burned down the White House after eating the President’s victory dinner, prepared prematurely.
This land success on the British side was difficult to follow up due to the problem with the supply lines. This war was fought without modern methods of transport, and with the road network between the USA and Canada non-existent, sea or river transport was the only possibility. In addition, there was the problem of an armed population, with a strong sense of national identity and a history of fighting the British. Such a force is hard to conquer, and would make occupation a difficult goal. In any event that was never the intention of the British. Occupation of key points and raids into enemy territory were the main tactics employed by the British forces. It was the Americans who sought occupation of Canada, but even this was recognized as being more use as a bargaining tool in peace negotiations to secure the ‘freedom of the seas’. Whilst there were certainly voices, some of them high up in the American legislature, calling for an incorporation of Canada into the United States, most recognised that such an occupation would probably prove impossible.
The war in the Great Lakes was dominated by Lakes Ontario and Erie. These Lakes, the largest, were the most strategically important. If one side could control them both, the hope was that they would be able to use them to mount an invasion. As with the rest of the war, neither side was prepared to fight on the Lakes. The only garrisons present were staffed by reservists, and there were very few ships present. On Lake Erie, the only British vessels were the ship Queen Charlotte and the brig General Hunter, neither of which were in anything like fighting condition. The US only had an army supply vessel, the Adams, so if anything they had still greater difficulties.7 Lake Ontario had a slightly larger range of forces – the British having four ships of 20, 14,12 and 6 guns respectively, and the US having seven ships, of 18, 11, 6, 3, 3, 1 and 1 guns respectively. Although the US outnumbered the British, the British had a critical superiority in armament, that it was hoped would prove decisive.8 Additionally, and of grave importance to the British, there were the war canoes of the Great Lakes Indians. Although useless in an actual battle, they would perform good service as amphibious landing craft.
If either side had managed to seize control of both lakes, they would have had a route directly into the heart of the other nation, that would have been difficult to block. The damage that could have been done would have been considerable, but it is questionable whether it would have been as decisive as was assumed. Any US force moving into Canada through the Lakes would still have had to face a significant journey before it reached any of the major settlements, and the supply line would still have been intolerably long. A reversed situation would have been slightly better, as Britain could have struck at more important, but it is still questionable how much damage could have been done. When the US failed to move northwards along the East Coast, mostly through the failure of the state forces to advance (they maintained that their duty did not involve them leaving US soil!), Britain seized on an opportunity to advance.
It is interesting to note that the campaign on the Great Lakes because progressively more important to both sides for the reason that it was the most active theatre in the war. Control of the Lakes became a matter of prestige, and as it became obvious that neither side would win the war conclusively, any victories became important for bargaining in the peace negotiations. This grew more important to the United States after the disastrous events of 1814, when the British captured Washington, and the White House burned. At that point, they desperately required a victory of some sort if they were to achieve anything in the peace negotiations, and the Lakes were the only place where it seemed possible they would attain it.
The War of 1812 is notable for the fact that neither side was prepared to fight it. The United States under Jefferson had cut back the army and navy. Indeed, the United States Navy had to fight continually for its very existence, and was always tiny. There had been a spell when a series of seagoing vessels were constructed, and were used to good effect in the Tripolitarian War. However, Jefferson had cut the Navy’s budget and changed its role, from a seagoing to a coastal navy.
This matter was simply a question of the differing roles a navy would be expected to play. The original US navy was designed for a similar purpose as the Royal Navy, to protect the trade of the US, as an insurance policy. The gunboat navy, on the other hand, ignored the needs of trade, and instead concentrated on coastal defence only, as well as internal power projection (the state of the Union at that point meant that any means of keeping the individual states in line was seized.) By 1812, the US Navy consisted of only sixteen vessels, some of those not ready for sea9, not counting the gunboat fleet, much of which had been decommissioned in 1809.
The US Army was barely large enough to defend the frontier from Indian attacks, which to be fair was its standard role. The British forces deployed in Canada were also woefully insufficient. The United States had almost 12,000 regulars, whilst Canada could muster 7,000.10 Royal Naval presence was minimal, and only a few small Army units were in position at the start of the war. The frontier only had a small string of forts, and the geography of the region was not well known at all. Large tracts of land along what would be the disputed border had never even been mapped, a hazard to land, but especially to naval operations.
Rather than regular forces, the plan was to use militia forces that could more cheaply and easily organized. For the British this would be a matter of expediency, until regular troops could be brought in. Ships could (and would) be constructed on site, as would other vital equipment, although quantities had to be brought in from overseas. Sir James Yeo continually asked for such supplies as canvas, twine, gun carriages, and iron work for new ships, which had to be brought in from Quebec or Montreal.11
It was also an important consideration during this period that troops were still tied up in the Iberian Peninsula. All of the most experienced veterans were busy fighting for the defence of Portugal, a country in which Britain had considerable investment. The navy was spread out across the world protecting British interests from French attack, and maintaining the blockade of the European ports. British forces were spread too thin to make sending reinforcements to what, on the face of it, was a relatively unimportant frontier, a practical matter.
For the United States, the idea of militiamen was something quite different. It had been ‘citizen armies’ that had won the freedom of their fledgling country during the Revolution. The idea of such forces, as enshrined in the Constitution by the ‘right to bear firearms’ was a prevalent one in the government, as it seemed to require little investment. They assumed that in any future war, the militia armies would be as successful as they had been previously. The United States Navy barely survived the thirty years between the Revolution and the War of 1812, because the dominant idea was that private ships could be requisitioned, or outfitted as privateers. These were again ideas that had worked before, and that it was assumed would work again. The War of 1812 proved, however, that concepts fine in theory would often fail in practice, with numerous issues of chain of command, and of the rights of the soldier.
A key problem, which the US Army faced during the War of 1812, was one that would be resolved in their next major war, the issue of states’ rights over that of the Federal government. Individual states would organize their own armies to supplement the federal army. This caused two problems. One was the issue of quality – some armies would be well-trained and equipped, but more usually they were like most armies trained in such a way – a collection of individualists, more a mob than a trained fighting force. This problem was even worse with regard to officers. Many officers, even general officers, were appointed because of local popularity, not because of any qualification or suitability for their post. Another problem connected to this involved the chain of command. Individual states took the view that they should determine the disposition and operations of their armies, and this meant that orders were often contradictory. Because the standard form was for federal officers of equal rank to state officers to have seniority, promotions were common. As state officers often had little or no experience or training, placing them in command caused severe problems.
A major difficulty faced by both sides, and one which meant that the Great Lakes were crucial to the War, was the terrain of the border areas. In between Canada and the United States is a large stretch of terrain that is almost impassable. Settlement in the area was extremely limited, with only a few farming settlements and logging communities. Investment in Canada was in the northern region, or along the East coast. The northern regions of Canada provided furs, but this trade did not require a high population density in order to be successful. The eastern coast was near some of the best fishing regions then known to European traders, and these areas were fished extensively. The lumber trade was also valuable, but none of these trades took place near the US border, meaning that there was little incentive for investment in the border regions. The northern border of the USA was as bad, however.
Britain did possess one advantage – an alliance with the local Indian tribes. Since Henry Harrison burned an Indian village to the ground during peace talks in 1811, they had been more inclined to ally with the British against the Americans, and this would prove to be of significant advantage to the British, during and after the war. During the war they had additional soldiers in their ranks that intuitively knew the territory.
After the war, the Indians were no longer as much of a problem for two reasons. The first was that a significant portion of their warriors were killed, and the second was that the leader of their civilization, a man named Tecumseh, was killed in the war. The Indian problem in Canada was no longer a problem, a significant gain for the British. The Indian civilization in that region had been facing problems before the war, with the incursion of British and American settlers into their territory, but the decimation of their tribes was the final straw. They were promised independence if they participated in this war, and the creation of an Indian ‘buffer state’ between the US and Canada, but realistically neither side would give up the territory necessary to bring this about. Officers such as Lt. General Drummond spoke out in official communications in their favour, “It is highly satisfactory to know that the Interests of the Indians will not be forgotten in any arrangement.”12, but this did not translate to action.
Communication and transport difficulties were the major problems along this frontier. Road networks were almost non-existent, and the difficulty of the terrain meant that off-road travel was slow, and dangerous, and led to high levels of attrition. The lack of a supply network, combined with the absence of many large centres of population, meant that supply and communications were the greatest problems facing commanders on the frontier. One method of transport that was possible, of course, was river transport.
The Great Lakes have a very high strategic value, in terms of communication and transport. Hundreds of lakes, large and small, and an intricate river network, meant that control of the Great Lakes would mean that the side that controlled it would have a major advantage in any war. River transportation was still an important part of industrial and economic infrastructure in such times, and both nations would be able to take great advantage of control of such a network. General Wolfe originally conquered Quebec by rowing up the St. Lawrence during the Seven Years War, something that would not have been lost on both sides. Canada also used a river network, through which the valuable fur and lumber trades were operated. Control of this network would be critical, and control of the Great Lakes would be a significant step towards acquiring such control. Indeed, Governor Tompkins of New York stated that “stores cannot get further (to the Lakes) till we open a secure passage for them”.13
There were, however, difficulties to operations on the Lakes. As already stated, the area was not well developed. The surrounding territory was heavily forested, and not easy to traverse, but the biggest problem facing both sides was the absence of accurate charts. On the lakes, this was a hazard to naval operations, and on land it meant that navigation was difficult. This problem could be remedied, and it is notable that the more accurate charts that became available were created because of this war.
The War on the Lakes was initially marked by construction and preparation for conflict. Both sides decided that the best way to proceed was to construct on site, rather than ship the long, difficult way up to the Lakes from the more industrialised regions. To organize this, both sent an experienced commander to the region, as well as whatever forces they could send. The idea was to build a cadre of experienced personnel and officers, who would be supplemented by locally trained personnel. However, on the British side, the Provincial Marine proved to be highly ineffective, and was largely supplemented by the Royal Navy – Marine officers being quickly removed from the command positions they occupied. As Captain Gray14 stated, “The officers serving in this division of the Province are in some instances extremely inefficient, and in short, totally unfit for the situations they hold.”15
Commodore Sir James Yeo, RN, had an interesting career before his arrival at the Lakes, notable for the fact that he had never commanded a large ship or a squadron. A Post Captain at the age of 23, he had spent all his time in corvettes and similar small ships. Indeed, although as a Post Captain he should have been transferred, he requested and was granted permission to remain in command of a corvette, the Confidence. His career was truly made, however, in 1809, when he led the expedition that removed the last French colony from South America, an action that earned him a Portuguese knighthood. His whole career was a testament to a mastery of small ship action, in all manner of theatres around the world, and the French Guiana campaign had given him valuable experience with amphibious operations. It is not difficult to see why such a man would be given the command in the Great Lakes.
Commodore Isaac Chauncey was a somewhat older individual, forty years old upon taking his command. His first duty in the US navy would be one he undertook many times – supervising the construction of a frigate, the President. Although he served in the Mediterranean during the Tripolitarian War, he saw remarkably little action, although he did prove his bravery on more than one occasion. Between 1807-1811, he was the commander of the New York Naval Yard, spending his time organizing stores and overseeing the repairs of the tiny US Navy. He continued in this assignment after war began, until he was posted to command the Great Lakes campaign. Although, he stated, he had little combat experience, he was an experienced naval administrator with knowledge of shipbuilding, as well as being a highly respected Captain in the US Navy.
These two appointments alone give an indication of what the different sides anticipated in the War of 1812. As has been seen, Britain had the upper hand on the Lakes at the start of this war (one is tempted to say naval superiority, but there were so few naval vessels on the Lakes at this point that any sort of control would have been impossible to enforce), and was hoping for a quick victory. So, they sent an experienced small ship commander with knowledge of amphibious operations. The US knew that their first task would be to build a fleet before they could use it, and so they dispatched the commander of one of their largest shipyards. Commodore Chauncey’s orders stated that, “In addition to the public vessels now on the Lakes you are at liberty to purchase, hire, or build…such others and of such form & armament, as may in your opinion by necessary.16” The choice of commanders is highly revealing to the viewpoint of the administrations involved.
Also other senior officers would be dispatched to the Lakes, it was planned that the personnel required would be found on site, rather than being recruited elsewhere. While the US had no alternative but to use its own service personnel, the British were more fortunate (a matter of opinion, considering the quality of the personnel provided) in having the service of the Provincial Marine, a colonial unit formed for colonial naval duties. They handled ‘Fresh-water’ engagements such as these.
Another question must be asked. Did the Lakes become a sink of material that could have been better used in other areas? The fact that ships were constructed on site might seem to suggest that this was not the case, but the construction of fighting ships requires more than wood and will. Cannons, ammunition, specialized naval supplies such as tar, all had to be brought in from elsewhere.
The US Navy was small during the war, with two missions. Their seaborne fleet did not engage in general fleet actions, but instead concentrated on commerce raiding, a tactic within their means. The resource drain to the Lakes would primarily be in the form of experienced sailors and weaponry, items that, to be fair, were not in short supply. Although its military power was limited, the United States was a maritime power, which did have some experience of combat at sea. These had been reassuring to the Americans that their system would be successful, as it had served them well in the limited conflicts they had been involved in.
The second mission was that dictated to it by Jefferson, that of coastal defence. Most of the seaports of the US had an attendant gunboat. These ships were not seaworthy, though they were suitable for river use. In the event, this mission can only be called a failure, as they failed to protect the US coast from the Royal Navy.
The Royal Navy of course had more resources to spare – the difficulty was in transportation across the Atlantic, of course. However, the fact that Britain was involved on so many fronts meant that resources were not as abundant as might be hoped. There was scarcity everywhere, but not solely because of the campaign of the Lakes, or even the War of 1812 itself, which to Britain was only a minor irritant to a greater conflict in Europe. It was, however, able to blockade the US coast with relative ease.
War on the Lakes was fought largely with materials constructed on site. Here again the problems of slow communication and transport were evident. It took time to get the new commanders in place, and time to get the infrastructure established for the construction of ships. Communications could often take longer to reach the commanders on the Lakes from the coast of Canada than they would take to cross the Atlantic, because of the difficult terrain. For such reasons, shipping large amounts of material was out of the question.
The climatic conditions were harsh, cold, with snowstorms and some ice. The weather was stable, however, and sailing conditions were generally good. The conditions were such, that the Royal Navy took pains to transfer personnel who had served in the Baltic regions, according the idea that they would already be adapted to the conditions to be faced in this region. Problems due to conditions had been experienced before, and it was naturally a good idea to get the most out of their available personnel as possible.
The Americans had no such worries over climatic conditioning, as they had numerous personnel who were already conditioned. This is one advantage of recruiting locally, in a militia system as opposed to a large national army. The troops that form the local militia will have local knowledge, and will be used to the conditions. Conditioned troops had proved to be vital in such plague-ridden holes as the West Indies of the 18th Century, where the majority of the stationed troops would die of fever instead of in action. Fever would not be such a problem along the Canadian border, but the severity of the climate would have been. Such problems as hypothermia and frostbite would have been familiar to these people.
So, the campaign on the Lakes had a lot of potential to change the face of the war, at least according to the viewpoints of those responsible for command decisions. The Great Lakes represented what seemed to be an easy opportunity for victory. The British assumed that their naval superiority and the loyalty of the inhabitants, as well as their Indian allies, would make the war easy to win. The Americans believed that their advantages would also make the war simple – closer sources of supply, more local militia strength, and their ‘moral advantage’ over the British.
The general strategic plan on both Lakes was a simple one – to secure overall control of the territory by eliminating the enemy, through control of the various harbours of the Lakes and the destruction of enemy vessels. Each hoped for a decisive victory. The reality of the war was that neither side managed the decisive victory they needed. Any partial victory would be of far less use, as would victory on only one of the Lakes. (Lake Erie was reasonably decisive, though it did take a while – it was Lake Ontario that hosted the stalemate.)
With little in the way of fighting ships on either lake, it was first important to find an effective harbour where ships could be constructed. Many considerations were important – defensiveness, strategic position as regards projecting control of the Lake, and crucially availability of supply, and proximity of communication routes. These qualifications were not easy to fulfil, to say the least, and compromises had to be endured. Lines of communication and supply could be constructed if they were needed – how many towns have only come into existence as the result of war – and defences could be constructed.
The lack of ships, and the inability for either side to transfer, was actually a minor advantage in an odd way. The Lakes, being lakes, were fairly shallow, and it is likely that any normal ship would have found its range of operations limited. They would have been larger than required, rendering manoeuvring more difficult than for the smaller ships that were the major feature of action on the Lakes. Additionally, the usage of shallow-draft ships enabled a wider range of harbours to be considered, and minimized the amount of work that would be required to bring them up to the quality that was required.
Of course, it still meant that these ships had to be constructed, and this took time. There were two advantages to combat on the Lakes, not available to sea or ocean-based campaigns. The first of these was that many supplies were more readily available. The coast would only be a short journey away, and the banks were dotted with small settlements, which could be counted upon to provide food, fresh water, and other such commodities. Even if local settlements were not available, parties could be put ashore to hunt for the plentiful local game. Timber was naturally also plentiful.
The second was the water in the lakes – fresh as opposed to salt. Salt is a corrosive element for wood, and caused difficulties to sustained action at sea. Campaigning in fresh water meant that this was not an issue. There is also the point that drinking water would be rather easier to find in a Lake than in the middle of the Atlantic. In addition, the cold climate proved to be something of a boon. When a ship has to transition between hot and cold climates, the wood will expand and contract, warping. This increases the wear and tear on the ship greatly, but was not an issue in this campaign. In addition, it was recognized that the ships would not be needed for long. After this war, they would be only of limited use, and so corners could be cut. There were cases of ships being built with the expectation that they would only fight a single battle – and on Lake Erie, this expectation was met! So, constructing ships on site was not as much of a handicap as might initially have been thought, as the quality placed into the construction of seagoing ships intended for long service was simply not required.
As stated, the obvious strategy on the Lakes was to neutralize the enemy forces, through a combination of naval engagement and conquest of the harbours. In this theatre, destruction or capture of enemy forces would be even more advantageous than normal, because of the long supply lines and the time it would take to rebuild forces. The problem was that neither side had an obvious advantage. A general engagement would be a risk for the side that attempted it. It is likely that such an engagement would have decided the outcome of the campaign one way or the other, as indeed it did at Lake Erie. On Lake Ontario, decisive naval combat was avoided.
What, then, was the alternative? A series of raids, and attempts to catch individual ships out by themselves, away from the fleet. These raids could take the form of ground assaults with the aid of marine forces, which did show some success – the American forces were able to capture briefly a important British fort, and destroy a large ship that was almost completed – or naval attack, such as the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, where British forces raided the major American strongpoint on Lake Ontario, causing considerable damage to equipment, and also to the command structure. Sailing Master Barclay, the second in command on the lake, blamed Commodore Chauncey’s brother for the incident (he himself had been relieved of duty at the time, due to personal indiscretions), and this meant that a good portion of the American commander’s time was tied up with defending himself and his family from accusations from Barclay and his supporters.
Intelligence was available rather more easily than in many theatres. Deserters would often simply cross the lake and make reports to the opposing commander in return for the expected rewards. However, these reports were often, as many such reports are, greatly exaggerated, or tailored to match the assumed desires of the officer being reported to. Chauncey believed that the Canadian force mustered between 1,000 and 1,500 men in 1812 – in fact the figure was 230.17 Later, Dearborn thought that 6,000 – 8,000 soldiers were stationed at Kingston, whereas the real figure was nearer 3,000.18 Many such deserters, when their reports were found to be inaccurate, were sent back to their original commanders, where they could expect severe punishment. It is ironic that such actions were part of the cause of the War of 1812.
The decisiveness of the war as fought on Lake Erie as opposed to that fought on Lake Ontario brings about one of the major questions relating to the Great Lakes campaign. Was it the inability of the field commanders on Lake Ontario that prevented a decisive battle, or was it simply not a justifiable risk to take? A major naval action would very likely have decided the issue for good, bringing the winners, it was believed, major strategic advantages in the war. Although Commodore Yeo said, “If he leave Kingston, I shall meet him. The result may be doubtful, but worth the trial.”19, he passed up several opportunities to back this up with real action.
At the time, accusations of cowardice were laid against both commanders, especially after the decisive action on Lake Erie, where the British fleet was wiped out. Was the lack of a major, decisive action indicative of cowardice? Naval doctrine at the time would have suggested that a fleet action would have been the appropriate course to take, according to the Royal Navy, but given the success of the commerce raiders of the US Navy, it is doubtful whether the American commander would have considered such a tactic, when more indirect methods were serving his country well in other theatres.
Another point that should be made is that this war was unlike any other fought in recent history by either side. The US had little experience in naval combat, and much of what little they had was based around the damage a small power could do to a large one. All of their tactical and strategic thinking had been put into defeating the British at sea, with little consideration given to the Lakes at all until as late as 1810.
The British also had problems. The Royal Navy certainly had vast naval experience by this time, after twenty years of continuous war, but it was a sea war against another major power, where there were reinforcements available. If Nelson had been defeated at Trafalgar, there were other ships, and admirals, available. If Yeo was defeated on Ontario, however, there could be no new fleet for months, and the confined nature of the Lakes would have meant that weeks, not months, would have been required to ensure that the US Navy kept its naval superiority throughout the war.
The risk, then, was a definite and important factor to take into consideration. Another point that must be raised is that finding the enemy could have been the problem. Although the Lake was small, it was small only in a relative sense. Hundreds of square miles of water are a lot of space for a few small ships to be found in. Additionally, there were any number of places to hide, spots along the coast where a fleet could avoid action if it chose. Both commanders would have had to make the decision to enter combat, or combat would not be engaged. Even an attack on the central harbour would not guarantee that the fleet would be present, as was the case when the British made the attempt.
It must therefore be asked whether a conclusive engagement was advisable, or even possible? Given the flow of intelligence between the two fleets, it seems likely that battle could have been joined at some point, and if both fleet commanders had decided upon an engagement, it should have been possible. But would it have been advisable?
Whatever the strategic possibilities actually were, both sides certainly believed that the campaign on the Lakes was vital to the success of the war. Later on in the war, it became even more important, as a victory or a defeat could have had a major impact on the outcome of the peace negotiations. With everything riding on the success of it, it is quite understandable that neither commander would have dared to risk a major engagement, especially with such even odds as existed. If one side had an obvious advantage, it would likely have been a different story, but this was not the case in this theatre. The best position to take that this action was not the result of cowardice, but a natural caution on the behalf of the commanders. It could easily be claimed that the lack of action was proof of the quality of the commander. A less able one, or one more inclined to the pursuit of glory, might have taken the risk and caused either an excellent victory or a crushing defeat.
There are many aspects of the War of 1812 that are mirrored in the Lakes campaign. One of these is the delay between declaration of war and actual combat. The simple fact is that just as neither side was ready for war on the Great Lakes, neither side was ready for war with the other. One of the many disadvantages of the militia system that both sides used was that it was extremely slow to get moving. It takes time to organize a band of people into even a fighting mob. They have to first be brought together into a single location, along with the required supplies, something that on these frontiers could take months to organize. Training was another delay, and then there was the natural resistance to military service that many felt.
This was especially true in the US, where feeling about the war was highly divided. Many of the New England state refused point-blank to have anything to do with the war, and they did not mobilize their state armies for action. They even continued to trade with the British, going so far as to trade goods that they knew were going directly to the British forces in Canada. Such was the level of feeling in the US. It is interesting that the states farthest from the Canadian border were those who most vehemently argued for the war.
To be fair to the planners of the US, Britain was the only power they had a shared border with, and up to that point relations had been relatively amicable. They had always planned to defend against coastal raids, or more likely Indian attacks on their Western settlements and trade routes.
The British forces were similarly ill-fated in their actions against the US. Just as they had little success on the Lakes, they actually accomplished relatively little during the War, something that can be laid down partly to the conditions, and partly due to the incompetence of the senior commanders in the field. The raid on Washington was their one major success in the war, revenge for a similar attack by the US on a provincial city. On land, however, they made no serious incursions into US territory that were not quickly thwarted, and the lines stayed around the Canadian border for the whole of the war. They did manage to prevent the US invasion of Canada that had been hoped for, although again this was largely down to the unwillingness of the militia to advance and the incompetence of the commanders in the field, many of who had never seen action or worn a uniform until this war.
The parallels to the Lakes campaign are obvious. The victory on Lake Erie was obvious and conclusive, but it was never really followed up, just like the British attack on Washington. Lake Ontario was a stalemate throughout the whole campaign, with no decisive action.
This was not a war in the sense that the officers of the day really understood it. There was no decisive battle. No Austerlitz, no Trafalgar, no Waterloo would determine the final course of this War. The terrain simply was not able to provide for such an engagement, and the communication, supply, and population of the areas would not provide from the large armies that were a crucial feature of the Western European War that was the most widely studied in the period. The parallels with the Peninsular War were probably greater, but this war was not as well understood by the rest of the military establishment during this period, and the officers and men who knew that war and that situation best were in the Iberian Peninsular still fighting that war until 1814. It is interesting that when units were transferred from the Peninsular to Canada the situation began to improve for the British. At some point there was some discussion about sending Wellington over to Canada to win the war in the same way as he had been seen to win the war in Europe. It is an interesting statement on the war that Wellington did not imagine that his performance would be any better than the present commanders in the field. This was the statement of the senior military thinker of Britain in this period, an indication of how they saw the war.
The parallels as far as naval warfare went are even more startling. The war on the Atlantic Ocean did not consist of large naval actions, as they would have resulted certainly in a crushing defeat for the tiny US Navy of the time. Instead, a series of small, limited actions took place, combined with commerce raiding. In this manner, the war was not very different on the Lakes. Few decisive actions, and many limited single-ship engagements.
Another fact to consider is that many of the high military planners failed to grasp that the situation along the Canadian border was totally different to that of north-west Europe, where many of the previous studied wars had taken place. This could partly be a consequence of not knowing the terrain conditions first-hand, and the inaccurate mapping of the period. A hundred miles looks like a short distance when it is a centimetre on a map, but when those hundred miles is a treacherous walk through dark forest and deep swamp, it is far more difficult. Probably, too much was expected of the commanders in the field, because no one could really understand why they were not immediately successful. Little preparation of thought had gone into war in this theatre before the war began, except that relating back to the Seven Years War and the War of Independence, which in many ways were totally different. Not only did Britain have a lot more force available when it took Canada from the French during that war, but Canada was a much smaller place in terms of population in those times. A lot of immigration had taken place since then, notably of American loyalists fleeing the Revolution.
Given the fact that neither side was able to make any significant gains, it hardly seems surprising that they both began to look upon the Great Lakes as critical to their success. Britain was not doing well in the propaganda war at sea, so naval victory on any theatre was of great importance. The war on land was certainly not going the way of the United States, largely because of the problems they faced in invading Canada, and so they looked upon the Lakes as essential for their advance. Britain similarly faced supply problems, and the Lakes would have been useful to their supply access.
In many ways, this campaign was critical to the survival of the US Navy. Although their victories on the ocean were significant, the chief hero from that part of the war, Oliver Hazard Perry, died young.20 Also, many of the victories were attained by privateers, or were attained in such a way as to make a ‘privateers-only’ strategy seemed to be a good one. If commerce raiding was the main part of a national defence strategy, what need a large standing navy? The US Navy looked to their victories on Lake Erie as a reason to continue its existence, which during the early nineteenth century was in some doubt, despite the undoubted maritime power states of the US. (Indeed, it could be said that the maintenance of the US armed forces is the main reason for the extravagant manner in which the war was recorded by writes of the day, and the importance assigned to it by historians – the US Armed forces looked to this war to provide their heroes, in order to create some sort of popularity amoung the people to influence the legislature.)
As has been seen, however, the US Navy’s ‘victories’ in this war were far more limited than the popular history records. As Sir James Yeo himself said in May 1815, “The experience of two years active service has served to convince me that tho’ much has been done by the mutual exertions of both services, we also owe as much if not more to the perverse stupidity of the Enemy; the impolicy of their plans; the disunion of their Commanders, and, lastly, between them and their Minister of War.”21
The peace negotiations that ultimately ended the war22 are another example of how the perception of success was ultimately all that was really desired. It has been mentioned that a victory was needed for the success of the negotiations, but a little more detail at this point is useful.
As is usual in war, both sides had different aims, both mutually exclusive to the others’ policy. The British simply wanted a return to how matters stood before the war, a status quo ante bellum. If great success came, they might be able to secure advantages, but that, like the war itself to them, was of little important. If the American desires could be summed up in one small phrase, it would be ‘freedom of the seas.’ The US economy was focused on maritime power, much like that of Britain, except that it had little actual naval force to back that up. Matters such as forced impressment were a series issue for the, but far more important as always was the economic consideration, and the legitimacy of the British blockade of the European ports. The US wanted guarantees that any ship flying the American flag would be allow safe and unrestricted passage to any port it may choose to enter. Although the issue of a European blockade was winding to a close with the defeat of Napoleon, the US still wanted those guarantees.
As with any such negotiation, success depending on having tools to bargain with that the opponent lacked. Control of a portion of territory had historically been one of the best methods of providing such political advantages, and this was the major motivation behind the American invasion of Canada. This, of course, backfired, and left the United States behind at the bargaining table. British incursions into US territory, including the burning of the White House, were far more successful, and were worth a lot in the peace conference. Demonstrations that deep penetrations into US territory were possible at will made for an unsteady American delegation.
On the other hand, the US could be said to be winning the war at sea, as they were fighting it largely on their terms, rather than those of the British. The stranglehold they were placing on British commerce was a serious embarrassment, and created economic difficulties in the light of the continuing war with France, difficulties the British government were keen to see the end of. This too was worth considerable at the bargaining table at the peace conference.
In the end, the final result more closely resembled what the British sought than the American goals. Britain had made the more obvious victory, especially in terms of public appeal, although the Americans were perhaps superior at presenting the information of their victories to the public, possibly because of the general lack of interest of the British population. Britain had made many successes during the War, more so than the Americans, and this made itself felt in the negotiations, although the Americans were given certain assurances able specific issues, such as forced recruitment in American ports. To be fair, it was really no longer as necessary with the War coming to a close in Europe as well as in America. If anything, the Royal Navy would soon find itself with too many serving sailors to be profitably used, which would be a burden for a considerable time to come. In terms of the economic motives for war, though, this conflict was by no means a defeat for American mercantilism23, instead directing it towards the continental pursuits that would later prove so profitable.
The War of 1812, in many terms, was something of a non-event. If such a war had been fought in Europe, it would probably have been long since forgotten. This war is made different by the mythology that has sprung up around it. For the United States, this is the ‘Second War of Independence’, a glorious fight against the evil oppressors from whom they had freed themselves. For the US Navy, it provides the heroes it needed to sustain themselves through fifty years of budget cuts and Congressional apathy. For Canada, this is the foundation myth, the true birth of their nation. For Britain, it is largely ignored.
It can be said that war on the Great Lakes was a practical stalemate. The victory on Lake Erie was real, but Lake Ontario was the lake with the most potential, and without any victory here, the Great Lakes campaign had little positive effect on the war. Much had been hoped from it, but the goals that were set could never have realistically been attained. It could be said, though that the American victory on Lake Erie could have influenced the peacemakers, as they signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.
There is the question of the negative effect on the war, of course – the theory that this campaign was a sink of manpower and materiel. Judging by the evidence, this is simply not true. The vast majority of the manpower and materiel was procured from the surrounding area, and the limited amounts of other equipment that were supplied were too insignificant to be of any use on a larger scale, though they could have proved decisive on the Lakes. There is the question of the supply of experienced officers and seamen, of course, but for the Royal Navy, they had sufficient supplies that the few sent to the Lakes could be easily spared24, and the US Navy was never effective enough at sea to indicate that having additional officers present would have made any noticeable difference. The war at sea was won by the British once war was declared, the vast superiority of the Royal Navy made that obvious. The outcome on the Lakes was far less clear.
So, we have seen that this campaign had no real impact on what was really a rather limited conflict. Two things, however, make it worthy of interest. The first is the mythology – so many tales have been spun about this war that separating fact from fiction can often be a great challenge. The second is the fact that the Great Lakes campaign represents a war in miniature. By examining this conflict, it is possible to see on a smaller scale the nature of the larger conflict, for as stated earlier, the parallels are manifold. It may in the long run have been a meaningless war, but it was certainly an interesting one.
1 1812: Conservatives, War Hawks, and the Nation’s Honour, William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 2
2 Reflections of George Hay, American Historical Review, Vol. XXXII, No.1
3 The War of 1812 (Hickey), p11
4 Fur Trade Strategy, American Historical Review, Vol. XL, No. 2
5 A Signal Victory, p7
6 A Signal Victory, p7
7 A Signal Victory, p 17
8 Lords of the Lake, p330
9 The War of 1812 (Horseman), p52
10 The War of 1812 (Hickey), p73
11 Select British Documents of the Canadian War of 1812, p31
12 Select British Documents of the Canadian War of 1812, p42
13 A Signal Victory, p25
14 Assistant Deputy Quartermaster General with special responsibility of the Marine Department
15 Lords of the Lake, p29
16 The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Vol. 1, p297
17 The Defended Border, p46
18 The Defended Border, p53
19 Sea Power in its Relation to the War of 1812, p45
20 Perry’s victory statement ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours’ became one of the great slogans of the US Navy. (A Signal Victory, p182)
21 An American Plan for a Canadian Campaign, American Historical Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2
22 Although typically, one of the most successful battle fought by the US during this was, the Battle of New Orleans, happened a week after the treaty had been signed, an example of the way communications lag could affect matters at this time. Indeed, some naval ships would not have learned that peace had been declared for months.
23 Age of Mercantilism, William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 4
24 Indeed, by 1813 only a total of 848 seamen were required for duty in the Lake Ontario Squadron, the larger of the two British squadrons – this seems to be a mere drop in the ocean, in terms of Royal Naval Manpower. (Selected British Documents of the War of 1812, Vol. 1, p 29)