The War of 1812 Begins

On June 18, 1812, the United States stunned the world by declaring war on Great Britain.

Supporting its allies in Spain and Portugal, Britain’s army was on the Iberian Peninsula, involved in a struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte, who had marshaled the forces of Revolutionary France under his penumbra.

Despite losing the Thirteen Colonies to George Washington and the American revolutionaries twenty-five years earlier, England, like many on the European continent, did not take the United States that seriously. Despite the fact that most of Britain’s supplies for the Napoleonic war came from America and Canada -from beef to feed the Duke of Wellington’s army, to the oak trees essential to maintain Britain’s majestic navy. Britain found itself faced with another war, a war they had assiduously tried to avoid.

The ostensible reasons for the war seemed to have been forgotten once the opening shots were sounded. The United States was upset at the British navy’s arrogance on the high seas. Desperate to find sailors for a fleet of over one thousand ships, Great Britain didn’t hesitate to stop and search American ships in the hopes of recovering seaman who deserted the draconian existence of the British navy for the easier life aboard U.S. vessels. British captains were not above press-ganging the odd American while they were at it. England had also begun to seize Yankee ships trading with Napoleonic France. These tactics caused a huge controversy in the American Congress. Eventually, the United States cut off all trade with the continent.

As the record reveals, the Americans wanted more than just maritime rights. What they also wanted was the other half of the North American continent still in the hands of the King of England. In 1778, during the American Revolution, the Yankees tried to seize Canada, and actually captured Montreal. The expedition however, under Generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold, perished in the sub-zero cold beneath the towering walls of the fortress at Quebec.

In 1812, Americans were determined to make another attempt at eradicating the British presence in North America, and settle “the Indian question” once and for all. Such a campaign, promised Thomas Jefferson, would be a matter of mere marching. In Congress, the War Hawks took up this position and demanded the United States finalize the independence from Britain they had fought so hard to win. Many Americans came to see the 1812 conflict as the second Revolutionary War.

When Great Britain finally realized that the Americans would go to war on the impressment issue, it revoked the Orders-in-Council which authorized the seizures. In the final analysis, these causes bore so little weight, that they were not even mentioned in the peace treaty which, eventually ended the war. But in early 1812, it was too late. War was imminent, and could would not be stopped.

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