The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent

In 1783, the United States ended its revolution against Great Britain and began to build the new country. But early in the next century, once again England and America faced disputes, which ultimately led to war.

J.C.A. Stagg in The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent provides a concise narrative of this event, which is marking its bicentennial this year. President James Madison urged Congress to declare war against England to protest the British Navy’s practice of impressment – that is, stopping American ships and taking sailors to help out their tired forces.

In 1812, England and France were at war over Napoleon’s desire to control Europe. Many felt Madison had a weak case for war, and many in Congress opposed it. Diplomacy tried and failed to settle the issues between the two countries. Neither side wanted war, but in June 1812, the war began.         

One objective that the United States wished to achieve would be to gain more territory by annexing part of Canada, thereby denying the British ownership of that North American territory. Several battles were fought in this endeavor over the course of the war. The United States tried to invade both Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) through the Great Lakes but all attempts failed. Both sides did claim temporary victory but nothing lasted.

One problem confronting the United States during the war centered on the question of finance. The country had trouble raising revenue for the war along with getting enough forces for the military. The country also lacked popular support for the war, especially in New England, which threatened to withdraw from the union.

The most famous battle during the War of 1812 came to be the Burning of Washington in 1814. The British entered an unprepared capital city and burned most of the public buildings including the White House hoping to demoralize the country. British forces continued into Baltimore before facing defeat at Fort McHenry. A young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, grateful to see the American flag after a night’s imprisonment, wrote a poem which became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The most decisive victory for the Americans came in the Battle of New Orleans in early January 1815.  Andrew Jackson, the future president, defeated the British and drove them out of the South. By this time, however, a peace treaty had been signed ending the war, but with slow communications, the news had not reached the United States.

The end result of the conflict left conditions unchanged. Although both sides desired more territory, neither gained an advantage. All were weary of war, and peace came to Europe later in the year with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

The War of 1812 is an almost forgotten period of American history, but with its upcoming bicentennial, it is a good time to re-evaluate its effects on the United States.

I enjoyed re-visiting the history of the War of 1812. I remembered some of the highlights of the conflict, but had forgotten some of the details.  This book does not provide in depth battle descriptions, but for someone looking to re-visit the war, this book is a good place to start.

About the Author

Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.

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