Editor’s note: This is the second of three parts looking at the War of 1812, the first foreign attack on U.S. land. Part three will publish Sunday, Aug. 3.
James Madison was elected to the Presidency in 1808 but before he took office the following year, the Embargo Act of 1807 was repealed.
Madison and his administration began by prohibiting trade with both Britain and France. Then in May of 1810, Congress authorized trade with both nations, with the direction that if either would accept America’s view of neutral rights, the other would lose trading rights.
Napoleon pretended to comply and in late 1810, Madison proclaimed non-discourse with Great Britain. Pressure began to build from a young group in Congress, calling themselves the War Hawks, for a more militant policy.
Finally on June 1, 1812, Madison, giving in to pressure concerning British impressments of American seamen and the seizure of cargoes, asked Congress to declare war. Congress did just that 17 days later.
Even though Congress had declared war, the undeclared war had been ongoing since 1790. With the advent of a declared war, the British expanded their help with Tecumseh and the confederacy. However, as pointed out earlier, Great Britain’s number one priority was the war with Napoleon. This limited what Great Britain could accomplish against the United States.
In the spring of 1813, Maj. Gen. Henry Proctor, with about 900 regular British troops, merged with about 1,200 Native Americans and attacked Fort Meigs near Perrysburg, Ohio. Americans successfully defended the fort they but had 500 of its soldiers taken prisoner. The Native tribes, carried away with their triumph, began to kill the prisoners and Proctor made no effort to stop the slaughter, which ceased only after the arrival of Tecumseh.
Tecumseh’s humanity was long remembered and it contributed to his reputation among whites thereafter. Several other forts in the Ohio area were attacked but were fiercely defended by the Americans. Morale among the British and the Native American tribes flagged as a result of the heavy casualties suffered. By September of 1813, the British fleet, under Capt. Robert Heriot Barclay, were defeated at the battle of Put-in Bay in Ohio, thus causing Proctor to lose his ability to obtain sufficient provisions for his troops that had now expanded to 1,000 regulars and 3,000 tribesmen.
Proctor got word that William Henry Harrison was preparing an invasion. Without consulting with his Native American allies, he began to retreat. Tecumseh had long suspected that Proctor would flee without a fight and begged Proctor to give his warriors arms so they could carry on the fight alone. When Proctor refused, Tecumseh agreed to make the retreat. Finally, on Oct. 5, 2013, Proctor met the Americans in the battle of Moraviantown. The British under Proctor were so demoralized that at the first American attack they broke and ran, leaving the Native American fighters to face about 3,000 Americans. Tecumseh was killed during the battle, and with his death the resistance south of the Great Lakes ended.
On April 11, 1814, Napoleon abdicated the French throne and Britain’s war with France was over. This allowed Great Britain to move their focus to the war with the United States. For the last two years, the war had see-sawed back and forth and both Great Britain and the United States were looking for ways to make peace. Peace, however, was months away. Negotiations wouldn’t begin until Aug. 8 in Ghent.
On April 25, the British extended the blockade to New England, thus cutting off needed supplies. This was followed by two battles at sea in which the USS Peacock defeated the HMS Epervier, and the USS Wasp defeated the HMS Reindeer. By July, the British were occupying Eastern Maine but the Americans captured Fort Erie. However, two fierce battles ensued; one called the Battle of Chippewa, which was a victory for the U.S.; and one called the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, which is considered a draw by historians.
Then the worst thing that could happen did. The U.S. public credit collapsed and the banks suspended specie payment. Peace negotiations were still on-going but the war had taken an ugly turn for America.
On Aug. 18, 1814, a large force of about 4,000 soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross landed at the mouth of the Pawtuxet River. With only 250 regular troops available and another 1,500 from the newly formed military district, the Americans had little hope of stopping the British from marching on Washington, D.C.
On Aug. 24, at the town of Blandsberg, the Americans made a stand. The British overwhelmed two lines of defense, only losing 64 men in the process. The Americans retreated, having lost 24 men, and the British continued north without any serious harassment.
At about the same time in Washington, D.C., Dolly Madison, the President’s wife, removed key documents from the White House and a large painting of George Washington and took them to safety. Upon the arrival of the British, they burned the major government buildings including the President’s house (now known as the White House), the Capital Building, the Treasury, the State Department and the War Department. Having met their goal to raid the U.S. Capital, the British only stayed one night and left.
On Aug. 18, the British captured Alexandria, Va., and on the same day Nantucket Island in Massachusetts declared neutrality. After the victory over Napoleon, Wellington’s battle-hardened troops began to be shuttled into North America by the thousands. Also, the Governor General of Canada, George Prevost, had been given orders to establish a strong presence on Lake Champlain. As mentioned before, the British were the super power on the seas.
So, with the British’s newly constructed flagship, Confiance, the Chubb, Linnet, Finch, and several British gunboats, they sailed into Cumberland bay. Facing them in Plattsburgh Bay with their backs to three American Forts and the city of Plattsburgh, the American ships Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and Preble with Commander Thomas Macdonough in command, waited on what was to become one of the greatest naval battles fought in the War of 1812.