Long before 9/11, there was 1812

Editor’s note: This is the first of three parts looking at the War of 1812, the first foreign attack on U.S. land. Part one looks at the build up to war. Part two will focus on the British attack.


Every Sept. 11, our nation remembers the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon. Everyone old enough to remember the tragedy can remember where they were and what they were doing on that day.

The massive building and grounds built in remembrance of that tragic day is really something to behold. And yet, it’s not the first time that the United States has been attacked on its home ground with extreme loss of life. Perhaps the lack of a major monument may have caused our national memory to forget the first time we came under attack on U.S. soil.

Everyone remembers the revolutionary war fought in 1776. However, thee United States really hadn’t got started yet. When we finally placed this country under the U.S. Constitution in 1787, we had a true beginning. So, the first actual attack on American soil by a foreign power, and our first national tragedy as a result, was the War of 1812.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte were in control of most of Europe excluding Great Britain. The two mighty war machines were in a titanic struggle. The British navy was considered the mightiest navy in the world; a true 18th-19th century superpower. Several naval battles had occurred between the two nations with great losses. France’s armies were considered the largest and best, and several serious land battles were fought in which both sides took massive casualties.

In the United States, Thomas Jefferson began his presidency in 1801 and had placed the United States in a position of neutrality concerning the war between Great Britain and France. From a commercial stand point, this allowed the United States to supply both sides. However, Jefferson was sympathetic to France, as he had been America’s minister to France in 1785. Because of his strong feelings concerning the French Revolution, he had come into conflict with Alexander Hamilton while George Washington was President, over his bias concerning the French.

When Jefferson assumed the presidency, he slashed Army and Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on Whiskey, and reduced the national debt by one third. Then in 1803, he purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. As you can imagine, this action was not popular with the British. Both Britain and France interfered with the neutral rights of American merchantmen by seizing U.S. ships. This was contrary to international law, but both warring countries ignored the issue. Congress, at the urging of Jefferson, passed the Embargo Act of 1807. Unfortunately, this did not make Britain and France change there ways, but it did create a depression in the United States.

Another factor that led to the War of 1812 was Native American lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. After the American Revolution, it had become clear that Americans were going to extend their settlements at Native American’s expense. Some efforts were made to unify the six nations and various western tribes into a confederacy by the Shawnee but with very limited success.

With a promise by the British to help and supply arms, several battles were fought against the Americans. During this time, an Indian chief called Tecumseh rose to prominence. In August 1794, after the battle of Fallen Timbers near what is now called Waterville, Ohio, even though there was no clear winner, the British backed out of all their promises. In August of 1795 at the Treaty of Greenville, the Native Americans gave up most of present day Ohio. Between 1803 and 1805, at least 30 million acres were relinquished to American Settlers. American leadership, seeing the hand of Great Britain in Native American activities, began to strengthen their forts in the area with more soldiers and armaments.

Beginning in 1809, Tecumseh traveled to the Senecas and Wyandots and the six Nations tribes in New York State to spread the message of unification into a confederacy and to argue for common ownership of all Indian lands. Tecumseh was said to have visited tribes in the far north and in the south. Support for the confederacy was strongest among the Potawatomis, Ojibwas, Shawnees, Ottawas, Winnebagos, Kickapoos, Delawares, Wyandots, Menominees, Miamis and Piankeshaws. Chief Tecumseh recognized the confederacy was on shaky ground because many of the chiefs felt that the confederacy undermined their authority. Also, the confederacy was threatened with a loss of support when the Ohio Gov. William Henry Harrison, believing the confederacy was weak enough to ignore, purchased another large piece of land from several individual tribes.

Chief Tecumseh had promised to stop such transactions, otherwise the confederacy would collapse. If the chiefs took direct action, it would mean heavy casualties and they might lose the favor of the British. Thus, Chief Tecumseh prevented the survey of the land sale and threatened the chiefs with death.

The tensions between Native Americans and the Americans continued to grow. Governor Harrison found out that Tecumseh was going to travel south to speak to several tribes about joining the confederacy. He decided it would be a good time to force the issue. On Nov. 7, 1811, Harrison began a march toward the village of Tippecanoe in hopes of goading the tribes into acting rashly. When it didn’t work, Harrison attacked.

There were about the same amount of casualties on both sides, but the Native Americans ran out of ammunition and had to retreat. The Americans looted and burned the village. Harrison wrongly assumed that this ended the movement. It actually started a new determination to fight.

When Chief Tecumseh returned to Tippecanoe, he found great destruction, the bodies of his friends scattered across the ground, and his village in ashes. He immediately began rebuilding, preparing for war, and by June 1812, his confederacy was as strong as before. Unbeknownst to him, the War of 1812 between Britain and the U.S. had been declared on June 18.


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