Homework Help: A Summary of the War of 1812

How the War Began

This summary of the War of 1812 begins in the year 1783. Resentment had been building in the hearts of Americans from the end of the American Revolution up until 1811 when talks began to grow in favor of an all-out war. The United States had become very uneasy about the British occupying part of the North American continent. This occupation took place mostly in Canada and the Great Lakes territory.

Battery of Raevsky

There were other pressing issues of concern for which the Americans blamed the British. One such thing was the surplus of grain in the western U.S. they could not sell.

All of this uneasiness prompted a group of congressmen to form a coalition under the leadership of Henry Clay of Kentucky. They called themselves the War Hawks. This coalition successfully elected Clay as Speaker of the House and positioned their supporters in important congressional committees.

This coalition was very eager for war. They felt it would redeem the honor of all Americans if once and for all the British were kicked out of the Northern Continent. The U.S. was on the brink of a depression, which further promoted the idea of war. They felt that by an invasion of Canada, the honor of America could be saved, and Britain would repeal its policies.

However, the members of the Federalist Party did not see war as a good option. They saw it as the ruination of their trade and were against the war.

As time went on, other issues began popping up that further fueled the discussions in favor of going to war. Some of those issues involved Britain attempting to blockade the high seas, which did not go over well at all with fair-minded Americans. They believed the rights of the seas ought to be neutral and thus available to everyone.

American merchant ships were often seized, and Americans were taken as prisoners and forced to work for the British. However, the British said they were only looking for British deserters; this was supposed to justify their actions. All of these issues prompted pressure to be placed on Britain from the U.S. to sign treaties to end the blockades and raids of American ships.

An Unprepared United States

At the time of the War of 1812, the United States was not nearly large enough to take on Britain let alone France as well. There were approximately 7,700,000 people in the U.S., but the army had only 6,700 men and most of them were busy protecting the western forts. Congress allowed the militia to be increased to 100,000 men. However, some states felt so strongly against the war that they would not commit their men to it.

There were only sixteen vessels in the entire U.S. Navy, and this was not even close to the number needed to go up against the British Navy of two hundred frigates. Most of those ships carried twice the number of mounted guns of the seven seaworthy American ships.

There was also a problem in 1811 with Congress refusing to recharge the national bank. War seemed to be out of the question as there was no way to pay for it. Tariffs could not fill in the gaps as trade had fallen and tariffs (taxes) were down.

Next, there was the issue of poor communications, and roads to the west were limited. Often the President had no idea where his troops were. With the British blockading the coast and the west isolated, moving men and supplies to where they would be needed seemed a monumental task.

An evaluation of generals that were in place at the time of the war would seem to doom the U.S. from the start. They were older men who had not fought since the War for Independence. In fact, this situation proved disastrous in the first year of fighting.

Declaration of War

By 1807, after Thomas Jefferson had tried and failed to work these issues out peacefully by getting Congress to pass an Embargo Act against British ships, the only option that was left was war. The revocation of Napoleon's decrees in 1810 only prompted the British to refuse to repeal their orders.

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration for war that passed Congress but not without some disagreements. Interestingly, Britain had finally changed their stance and announced that it would revoke its orders, but this news did not reach the U.S. in time to prevent the war. This was due to lack of speedy communications as there was no way to get information across the great oceans very quickly in 1812.

Moving North in 1812

The U.S. decided to move north and attack Canada. They thought they had a good chance of getting the French to come over to their side as they were lukewarm to the British rule. Major General William Hull was forced to surrender in disgrace to General Isaac Brock at Detroit. This was a discouraging loss of what could have been a first stand at Ontario, Canada, thus turning Henry's attempt to regain Detroit into a failure. This loss of Detroit caused the U.S. to lose much of the Northwest. Fort Dearborn, which is modern-day Chicago, also fell to British control.

In October, the American force tried to capture the Niagara Peninsula. The Americans attacking Queenstown, New York, were thrown back and they lost at Fort Niagara. They tried again to attack Fort Niagara but met a terrible defeat because the New York militia was refusing to help in the war. They would not cooperate and move across the border. They stood by and watched the British defeating the American regulars.

This left only those individuals fighting at sea to produce real successes. The American frigate USS Constitution overcame HMS Guerrière and the USS United States victoriously won against HMS Macedonian.

In November of 1812, Madison ran for and won reelection as President of the United States. Reelecting Madison seemed the right thing to do amidst a war. American stuck with Madison rather than changing presidents mid-stream.

Power Struggle Over the Great Lakes in 1813

Several of the land battles around the Great Lakes did not go well at all in the second year of the war. Harrison and his lesser commanders suffered greatly as they realized the British were probably winning the war. If they could only get control of the Great Lakes, the U.S. might have a fighting chance.

800px-Chase of Belvidera 1812

It wasn't until a dynamic man by the name of Oliver Hazard Perry, who was only 27 years, came on the scene that the prospects looked better. He had a vision to win at Lake Erie, and he set a plan in motion that involved the local militias keeping outposts and shipyards from falling to British hands.

He built a naval base on Erie's south shore. This was a monumental task that required hauling ammunition hundreds of miles over rough roads and streams without any bridges. This project took him two years, but when it was completed, he was ready to take on Britain.

He built two new frigates; one was called the Lawrence and the other Niagara. These were built specifically to run on the Great Lakes. In September 1813, they set off to complete this task.

The flagship Lawrence was heavily damaged early on but that did not stop Perry. Perry climbed into a small boat and crossed over to the Niagara. He refused to back down. One hour later he sent a letter to General Harrison: "We have met the enemy and they are ours!" This was the last of the British in Detroit.

The Eastern Invasion of 1814

The First British Attack:

By this time, the British had defeated the French in Europe, and this freed them up to fight much harder against America. They decided to try to take New York. They amassed troops in Montreal and moved south, using Lake Champlain to get there. If they could take New York, they could cut off New England and severely hurt the U.S. However, they met with defeat on September 11 at Plattsburg, New York.

The Second British Attack:

Next, the British decided to attack Chesapeake Bay because this was where a great number of privateers were hiding out. The Americans gathered an inexperienced group together very easily at Bladensburg, Maryland, on August 23. In so doing, they left the capital open to attack the next day. Congress, along with the President, was seen fleeing across the Potomac to Virginia. This ruined the British plans to capture the President.

In spite of the imminent danger, the President's wife, Dolley, would not leave until a portrait of George Washington was cut out of its frame so they could take it with them. The painting and two trunks were all the possessions they were able to take with them that day. Today, the portrait of former president Washington hangs in the East Room of the White House.


At six o'clock the same evening, the British marched into Washington, and the men of Admiral Cockburn were asked if they thought the capital should be burned. They all cheered, "Aye! Aye!" They piled furniture and books from the Library of Congress on the floor and set it ablaze.

By 9:00 p.m., Admiral Cockburn was at the president's house. He took some souvenirs before setting the place ablaze also. However, a heavy rain descended upon the scene and put out the fire. Both the Capital and the President's house could be rebuilt, but the president's house was so black from the fire that they had to paint it white. This is how it came to be known as the "White House."

Because it was so easy for the British to take Washington, they decided to go all out and attack by land and sea at Baltimore, Maryland. This was the nation's third largest city at that time. American troops succeeded in keeping the British out. However, the British were not stopped, and then they bombed Fort McHenry, which was a harbor fortress. It did not fall, and this led to the retreat of the British.

A Final Fight in 1815

The third British attack:


The British would try one more place; they decided to attack New Orleans. However, Andrew Jackson beat them to it and attempted to save the city. Jackson and his men succeeded in throwing them back, and killed more than 2,000 British soldiers. The battle of New Orleans proved to be the biggest victory of them all. Oddly, neither force knew that the battle had been fought until after the war had officially ended.

An Ending by “The Treaty of Ghent”

The Treaty of Ghent was signed, and in February of 1815, the Americans finally got word of it. Nearly two months earlier on December 24, 1814, the treaty had officially been signed. This shows how long it took for information to reach around the world back in the 1800s. This treaty is sometimes called "the treaty of Christmas Eve."

The treaty had been signed in a neutral city called Ghent, and this is where it got its name. John Quincy Adams headed the American delegation. The treaty provided neutral rights at sea, but, interestingly, did not cover the issue that prompted the war in the first place. It did provide for disputes by creating a special commission, or group of men, to handle such matters in the future.

Finally, the war was over. The United States had gained respect in the eyes of the world, and a greater sense of nationalism was achieved. While no territory was gained for the U.S., the War of 1812 is remembered as a very important war in our nation's history.

Note From the Author

I hope you enjoyed this summary of the War of 1812. You are now better equipped to ace your next report or test on this subject. Be sure to look for other study guides and helps in this series on other subjects as I am always creating new study helps. If you use this study guide in your report be sure to reference this article. ~Atlanta Page


Source: Author's own education on this subject.

Author unknown:"The War of 1812" https://www.gatewayno.com/history/war1812.html taken from Bibliography: Berton, Pierre, Flames across the Border (1981; repr. 1988) and The Invasion of Canada (1980; repr. 1988); Caffrey, Kate, The Twilight's Last Gleaming: The British against America 1812-1815 (1977); Coles, Harry L., The War of 1812 (1965); Horsman, Reginald, The War of 1812 (1969); Mahon, John K., The War of 1812 (1972); Tucker, Glenn, Poltroons and Patriots: A Popular Account of the War of 1812, 2 vols. (1954).

Authors: Rachel C. Larson, M.A.; Pamela B. Creason, M. Ed.; Michael D. Matthews, M.Ed.:"the AMERICAN REPUBLIC for Christian Schools®", ©2000 Bob Jones University Press, Greenville, SC

Image #1 page 1: Franz Roubaud. Raevsky Battery during the Battle of Borodino (1812) under Public Domain

Image #2 page 1:Chase of Belvidera 1812 by Carlton Theodore Chapman (1860–1925),under Public Domain.

Image #1page 2: British Burn the Capital, 1814 by Allyn Cox , under Public Domain

Image #2 page 2: Author unknown: Map "Position of the American and British Armies near New Orleans on the 8th of January, 1815" ,under Public Domain