[photo, Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland]
  • Prelude to War
  • Chronology of the War
  • Marylanders during the War
  • The second war between England and America is commonly known as the War of 1812, even though it lasted almost three years.

    Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland, August 2010. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

    Tensions between England and the United States had been building for years, particularly since the start of the
    Napoleonic War in 1803. Contending with England, Napoleon, in 1803, sold to the United States all French territory west of the Mississippi River. Termed the Louisiana Purchase, the sale helped subsidize the French war effort, and more than doubled the size of the United States. The purchase agreement also gave the United States some lands disputed with England along the Canadian border.

    At war with France, England faced a growing problem of desertions, particularly from the Royal Navy. To recover deserters, England implemented a policy of boarding vessels encountered, and impressing any deserters found aboard. Frequently, the British boarded American trade ships and seized crew members, including American citizens falsely identified as former British sailors.

    In an effort to stop the British and French seizure of American vessels, the U.S. Congress, beginning in 1807, enacted a series of embargos, port closures, and trade restrictions, including the Embargo Act of 1807, the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, and Macon’s Bills. These acts met with little acknowledgment from either England or France, while both nations continued to seize American ships and crew. With native uprisings in the West attributed to British instigation, and England's presence in the colony of Canada, British policy and actions grew intolerable to the Americans.

    In June of 1807, the U.S.S. Chesapeake refused to allow British sailors to board in search of deserters. Shots were fired, and the Chesapeake was forced to surrender. Thereafter, the British boarded, and seized four men, three of whom were Americans. Outraged, the U.S. Congress demanded reparations, and a cessation of impressment.



    In the summer of 1812, President Madison met with Congress to declare war on England. The United States accused England of trade restrictions to discourage trade with France, impressment of U.S. citizens by the British Navy, and British instigation and armament of natives against American settlers. With this June declaration of war, as well as a failed American strike into Canada, July 12 to August 16, English and American hostilities and encounters became more violent and costly.

    Although hampered by its ongoing war with France, England immediately began erecting fortifications and added extra garrisons along the American and Canadian border, and the Great Lakes. The Americans, in turn, failed in their second attempt to invade Canada, October 10-13. This defeat, along with the British capture of Detroit, left American forces at a disadvantage at the beginning of 1813.


    In early spring, the war with Britain became a reality for Maryland residents. Beginning the year with a strong hold on the Canadian border, British forces were mobilized towards the Chesapeake Bay.

    For years, ships launched from Baltimore Harbor had harried the British fleet, and the British had labeled Baltimore as a den of privateers and pirates. In an effort to quell such assaults, as well as hamper transport of goods or troops by sea, the British Navy blockaded much of the eastern seaboard. In March, the British frigates and other warships sailed up the Chesapeake. These ships allowed the British to land troops quickly and easily on either the eastern or western shores of Maryland. Within a month of establishing the blockade, British troops launched sorties inland.

    As the Chesapeake Campaign of 1813 allowed no clear victories, American forces fared better on the frontier. While land forces gained little ground, American naval vessels won substantial victories on the Great Lakes. With Lake Erie under American control, British and native forces on the western front were unable to receive supplies or reinforcements. While the British were committed in the West, the American Army launched an attack on the Canadian capital of York (now Toronto). A clear victory for the Americans, the army looted and burned a number of key buildings, including York’s Parliament buildings.


    The campaigns of 1814 were equally victory and defeat. As American forces gained further ground in the North and West, British forces redoubled efforts in the Chesapeake. With the defeat of Napoleon in Europe, England was able to send an additional 15,000 troops to America. Bearing in mind the destruction of York, the British used Maryland as a staging ground for a major assault against Baltimore and the American capital at Washington.

    [photo, Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland]

    While British forces were able to seize and burn Washington with little difficulty, the secondary assault on Baltimore failed to gain even modest success. Though British forces bombarded the city from land and sea, Baltimore repelled the attack for three days until the British withdrew.

    Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland, August 2010. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

    [photo, Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland]

    Cannons at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland, August 2010. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.


    Despite the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, the War continued. Due to the slow relay of communication at the time, fighting persisted even after news of the signing reached the United States.

    The most famous post-Treaty battle was the Battle of New Orleans, but many more were fought from Maine to Alabama, including the Battle of the Ice Mound in Dorchester County, Maryland. There, American militia crossed the frozen Chesapeake Bay to attack British barges iced in at Taylor's Island off the Eastern Shore.

    On February 16, Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the War. Though a number of native tribes kept fighting in the West, the British thereafter withdrew from the United States without further conflict.

    Although the War of 1812 lasted for nearly three years, it accomplished little for either nation. Reasons given for the declaration of war had been effects of the Napoleonic Wars, and with Napoleon exiled in April 1814, the two primary American war aims were accomplished despite the ongoing war. England had ended the practice of impressment, and repealed the Orders in Council that effectively had closed Europe to American merchants. As the campaigns of 1814 ended, both sides possessed lands claimed by the other, and neither nation could wage a fully successful land campaign. Consequently, the Treaty of Ghent was written to create status quo ante bellum, returning conditions to a prewar state.

    Comprised of eleven articles, the Treaty of Ghent spelled out the cessation of hostilities, the dispersment of the armies, and the return of property and personnel seized during the war. It defined the borders as those agreed upon by the Treaty of Paris (1783). The Treaty of Ghent also provided that disputed land not covered in the treaty of 1783 would be resolved by joint committees established at a later date (committees authorized by the Treaty never were appointed, nor was the issue addressed again until the London Convention of 1818). In signing the Treaty, both sides agreed to cease the encouragement of native uprisings against the other, and "use their best endeavours to accomplish" the abolition of slavery.

    England refused to address the issue of impressment, but neither did it pursue its stated war aims, which included redrawing the American-Canadian boundaries. England had sought territory in Maine, New York, and along the Louisianna Purchase northern border. Previously England had also demanded that a neutral zone be created between the two nations and be given to the native population as payment for their part in the War.

    By the end of 1815, England and America both had returned land and prisoners taken during the War, and reestablished trade. Though impressment had not been covered by the Treaty of Ghent, and England legally could resume the practice of impressment, England never again organized press gangs, or boarded ships to reclaim sailors. Slavery, though addressed by the Treaty, had been abolished in England in 1774, and by its colonies in 1807. As a nation, the United States would not abolish slavery until 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

    As Defenders Day, Maryland has commemerated the Battle of North Point and writing of the national anthem since 1908. Celebrated each September 12, Defenders Day is a State holiday with fireworks, reenactors, and historic presentations. Held September 10-12, 2010, the Baltimore celebration at Fort McHenry included concerts, fireworks, parades, and reenactments.

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