The British View the War of 1812 Quite Differently Than Americans Do

The star-spangled war confirmed independence for the United States. But for Great Britain, it was a betrayal

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere by Thomas Birch, circa 1813 (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

New York City and Philadelphia were blockaded. The Royal Navy also bottled up the Chesapeake and the Delaware. To the British, these successes were considered payback for America’s unfair behavior. “However, we seem to be leading the Yankees a sad life upon their coasts,” wrote the British philanthropist William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, in July 1813. “I am glad of it with all my heart. When they declared war they thought it was pretty near over with us, and that their weight cast into the scale would decide our ruin. Luckily they were mistaken, and are likely to pay dear for their error.”

Dudley’s prediction came true. Despite the best efforts of American privateers to harass British shipping, it was the U.S. merchant marine that suffered most. In 1813 only a third of American merchant ships got out to sea. The following year the figure would drop to one-twelfth. Nantucket became so desperate that it offered itself up to the Royal Navy as a neutral trading post. America’s oceanic trade went from $40 million in 1811 to $2.6 million in 1814. Custom revenues—which made up 90 percent of federal income—fell by 80 percent, leaving the administration virtually bankrupt. By 1814 it could neither raise money at home nor borrow from abroad.

When Napoleon abdicated in April 1814, Britain expected that America would soon lose heart and surrender too. From then on, London’s chief aims were to bring a swift conclusion to the war, and capture as much territory as possible in order to gain the best advantage in the inevitable peace talks.

On July 25, 1814, the two foes fought their bloodiest-ever land engagement at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, a mile west of Niagara Falls near the New York-Canada border. There were over 1,700 casualties, among them America’s dream of annexing Canada. A month later, on August 24, the British burned down the White House and several other government buildings. To Prime Minister Liverpool, the war had been won, bar the skirmishing to be done by the diplomatic negotiators taking place in Ghent, Belgium.

London was quite put out to discover that the administration in Washington failed to share its view. President Madison did not regard America as having been defeated. Only two weeks later, on September 11, 1814, U.S. troops soundly beat back a British attack on Lake Champlain near the New York-Canada border. The poet Francis Scott Key didn’t believe his country was defeated, either, after he saw “by the dawn’s early light” the American flag still flying above Fort McHenry outside Baltimore Harbor on September 14. Nor did Gen. Andrew Jackson, particularly after his resounding victory against British forces outside New Orleans on January 8, 1815—two weeks after the peace negotiations between the two countries had been concluded.

The late flurry of U.S. successes dashed British hopes of squeezing concessions at the Ghent talks. This led the negotiators to abandon the plan to insist on a buffer state for the defeated Native American tribes that had helped British troops. Prime Minister Liverpool gave up trying to teach the Americans a lesson: “We might certainly land in different parts of their coast, and destroy some of their towns, or put them under contribution; but in the present state of the public mind in America it would be in vain to expect any permanent good effects from operations of this nature.”

The British realized that simply getting the Americans to the negotiating table in Ghent was the best they were going to achieve. They also knew that Canada was too large and too sparsely populated to be properly defended. There was also the matter of general war-weariness. British families wanted their menfolk home. Lord Liverpool feared that time was going against them. After the negotiations were concluded on Christmas Eve 1814, he wrote: “I do not believe it would have been possible to have continued [wartime taxes] for the purpose of carrying on an American war....The question there was whether, under all these circumstances, it was not better to conclude the peace at the present moment, before the impatience of the country on the subject had been manifested at public meetings, or by motions in Parliament.”

Although nobody gained from the Treaty of Ghent, it is important to note that (with the exception of the later betrayals suffered by the Native American tribes) nothing was lost either. Moreover, both countries had new victories to savor. The U.S. found glory at the Battle of New Orleans, while six months later the British found theirs when the Duke of Wellington inflicted a crushing defeat over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Both victories overshadowed everything that had taken place during the previous two years. For America, 1812 became the war in which it had finally gained its independence. For Britain, 1812 became the skirmish it had contained, while winning the real war against its greatest nemesis, Napoleon.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus