The War of 1812 — America’s Second War for Independence

1812–1815

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1815. Land battles took place in North America while sea battles occurred on North American lakes, in the English Channel, and on the Atlantic Ocean. Although the outcome of the war is considered to be a stalemate, it led to a wave of patriotism in the United States and the beginning of the “Era of Good Feelings.”

James Madison, Painting

President James Madison led the nation through the War of 1812. Image Source: Wikipedia.

War of 1812 Summary

The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain — which is also known to some Americans as the “Second War for Independence” — was the result of unresolved grievances between the two nations. Those grievances were British violations of American neutrality, impressment of American sailors, and supporting Native American Indian raids against American settlements.

The dispute came to the forefront during the Napoleonic Wars, as Great Britain resisted Napoleon’s Continental System and waged war with France. The United States tried to resolve the grievances politically, but all efforts failed. As a result, President James Madison and Congress declared war in 1812. 

Although the United States tried to conquer Canada, the American war effort was hampered by unreliable militia forces and poor leadership. The British were able to capture Detroit and raid the Chesapeake Bay area. However, the small U.S. Navy stunned the British in several naval battles, which provided the Americans with hope. During 1813, Indian forces, led by Tecumseh, were defeated at the Battle of Thames, ending Indian resistance in the region.

The war was at a draw by 1814, but the British launched attacks along the East Coast. For a time, they occupied Washington D.C., where they burned the White House and the Capitol. However, American forces continued to resist, leading to victories at Baltimore and Plattsburgh.

Both nations, weary of war, decided to negotiate and agreed to the Treaty of Ghent. However, one last battle took place, at New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson led American forces to victory. Jackson’s victory created a wave of nationalism that swept across the country and initiated the Era of Good Feelings.

Battle of New Orleans, 1815, Moran, Painting, LOC
The Battle of New Orleans. Image Source: Library of Congress.

War of 1812 Facts

  1. The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain over trade restrictions, the impressment of American sailors, and British support for Native American Indian attacks against Americans living on the Western Frontier. 
  2. France (Berlin and Milan Decrees) and Britain (Orders in Council) also used economic warfare against each other, which impacted American trade and shipping.
  3. The United States tried to use economic sanctions to resolve issues with both nations, especially Great Britain, including the Embargo Act of 1807, the Non-Importation Act, and Macon’s Bill No. 2.
  4. President James Madison asked Congress for a Declaration of War, which was granted on June 18, 1812. Federalists who opposed the war referred to it as “Mr. Madison’s War.”
  5. The war lasted from June 1812 to February 1815 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
  6. Proponents of the war, known as “War Hawks,” were a faction of Congress, including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who saw the war as an opportunity to expand U.S. territory.
  7. William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson gained popularity for their military success in the war, which helped them win Presidential Elections.
  8. The death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 ended Native American Indian resistance on the Western Frontier.
  9. The British imposed an economic blockade on the Atlantic Coast, carried out raids, and burned Washington D.C.
  10. Major battles of the war included Queenston Heights, Lake Erie, the Thames, Horseshoe Bend, Baltimore, and New Orleans.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, Portrait, David
Napoleon in 1812. Image Source: National Gallery of Art.

War of 1812 History

The War of 1812, like the French and Indian War, found its origins in a European conflict that involved Great Britain and France. As the Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe, France and Great Britain waged economic warfare against each other that impacted commerce and shipping of neutral nations like the United States.

War of 1812 Causes

However, tension between the United States and Great Britain increased over two important issues:

  1. Impressment of American Sailors — Ships in the British Royal Navy would stop American ships and bound for French ports, searching for British subjects. In many cases, Americans were identified as having fled the service of the Royal Navy and were forced to join the crews of British ships. The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair (1807), nearly brought the two nations to war over the impressment issue.
  2. British Support for Tecumseh’s Confederacy — As American settlers pushed into the Old Northwest after the American Revolution, the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh formed a confederation of tribes. Tecumseh’s Confederacy carried out raids on American Settlements in the most significant Indian attacks in the region since Pontiac’s Rebellion. Americans were convinced the British instigated the attacks, contributing to the Battle of Tippenanoe (November 7, 1811). The American victory, led by William Henry Harrison, led Tecumseh to form an alliance with the British.
Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811, LOC
This illustration depicts General William Henry Harrison leading his men at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Image Source: Library of Congress.

In the wake of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair (1807), President Thomas Jefferson and Congress responded with economic policies like the Embargo Act of 1807, which attempted to coerce Britain and France by closing American ports. However, the policies hurt the American economy and divided public opinion. 

James Madison became President in 1808. Madison, a Democratic-Republican like his predecessor, also tried to resolve issues with Great Britain through economic policies. The two pieces of legislation, the Non-Importation Act (1809) and Macon’s Bill No. 2 (1810) failed to ease tension.

In 1811, a pro-war, pro-expansion faction in Congress known as the “War Hawks” pushed Madison to declare war on Great Britain. Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, was a member of the faction and skillfully pushed the pro-war agenda. 

Henry Clay, Illustration, c 1835, LOC
This illustration depicts Henry Clay. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Although the United States was unprepared for a major war against one of the most powerful nations in the world, Madison relented. On June 1, 1812, he delivered his War Message to Congress.

On June 18, citing violations of American neutrality, impressment of sailors, and frontier attacks, Congress declared war. However, there were other goals in the minds of supporters of the war, including defending the honor of the United States and conquering Canada. Opponents of the war, mainly Federalists, referred to it as “Mr. Madison’s War.”

The War in 1812 — Mr. Madison’s War Begins

The United States initiated the conflict by invading Canada on July 12, hoping to capture territory in Upper Canada and use it as leverage in negotiations with Great Britain. 

William Hull Invades Canada

The American invasion force was launched from Detroit, under the command of General William Hull, who was also the Governor of the Michigan Territory. The British responded by launching a counteroffensive, under the command of General Isaac Brock. Indian forces also harassed the Americans.

The British captured Fort Mackinac (July 17) on the northern tip of Michigan, and a force of Potawatomi Warriors attacked Fort Dearborn and burned the fort (August 15). 

American forces were forced to retreat to Fort Detroit. On August 16, with Detroit surrounded, Hill was forced to surrender the fort — and the Michigan Territory. With Hull’s defeat, William Henry Harrison took command of American forces in the Northwest.

Isaac Brock Falls at Queenston Heights

Following the victory at Detroit, Brock moved his forces east to engage the American forces that threatened Upper Canada. However, the Americans, led by General Harry Dearborn, failed to gain any ground. American efforts were hampered when New England Militia forces refused to fight at the Battle of Queenston Heights (October 12–13), which was the first major battle of the war. Despite the victory, the British suffered a blow when General Brock was killed during the battle.

Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812, Painting, Dennis
The Battle of Queenston Heights. Image Source: Wikipedia.

U.S. Navy Success in 1812

While the land campaign struggled, the U.S. Navy had some success on the high seas, led by Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, and William Bainbridge. The USS Constitution defeated the HMS Guerriere (August 19) and HMS Java (December 29). The USS United States also captured the HMS Macedonian (October 15). The naval victories also helped disrupt British shipping.

As 1812 came to an end, American forces on the Canadian border went into their winter quarters. Meanwhile, Tecumseh’s Confederacy continued to carry out raids against American settlements along the Western Frontier in Indiana and Illinois.

Tecumseh, Illustration, Portrait
This illustration depicts Tecumseh. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The War in 1813

1813 opened with a change of direction for the British Navy. Rather than engage American warships on the high seas, the Admiralty opted for a blockade of American ports. The blockade started with the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River.

River Raisin Massacre

In January, General Harrison planned to retake Detroit. However, an American raiding party was attacked near Frenchtown, Michigan in the Battle of River Raisin (January 22). The Americans surrendered but were massacred by Potawatomi Warriors. The incident led to an influx of volunteers from Kentucky to the American ranks but Harrison abandoned the idea of driving the British and their Indian allies out of Detroit.

Trouble with the Red Sticks

Soon after, a war party of Creek Red Sticks, led by Little Warrior, left Detroit and made their way back to Georgia. During their trip, they attacked and killed two families of American settlers along the Ohio River.

Zebulon Pike Falls

General Dearborn continued to try to take Upper Canada. On April 27, American forces, led by General Zebulon Pike, attacked York — present-day Toronto —  and defeated the British. However, Pike, who was also a renowned explorer, was killed in the battle.

General Zebulon Pike, Portrait, War of 1812
Photograph of Zebulon Pike. Image Source: Great Explorers of the West by Conrad Louis Wirth. Archive.org.

Siege at Fort Meigs

In the Northwest, American forces were gathered with General Harrison at Fort Meigs in Ohio, near present-day Perrysburg. British and Indian forces laid siege to the fort on April 28. Poor weather and a lack of reinforcements forced General Henry Proctor and Tecumseh to end the siege on May 9 and fall back.

Dearborn’s Offensive Into Canada Stalls

After York, Dearborn looked toward Fort George on the Niagara River. Colonel Winfield Scott became Dearborn’s Chief of Staff and helped organize the attack. American forces attacked on May 25 and two days later the British evacuated. Despite the victory, Dearborn failed to pursue the British. It allowed them to reorganize their forces and launch a successful attack at Stoney Creek (June 6). After a British victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams (June 24), Dearborn’s offensive ended and British naval forces laid siege to Fort George. Dearborn abandoned Fort George in December.

The Creek War Begins

In the Southeast, issues persisted between the United States and the Creek Nation. At the time, the Creeks were involved in a civil war. While the Creek Nation wanted to remain allied with the United States, the Red Stick faction aligned with Tecumseh’s Confederacy. 

On July 27, Americans ambushed a group of Red Sticks but were defeated at the Battle of Burnt Corn. The Red Sticks retaliated on August 30 when they attacked Fort Mims, north of present-day Mobile, Alabama. Roughly 400 American settlers were killed in the attack. 

After the battle, Secretary of War John Armstrong notified General Thomas Pinckney, Commander of the 6th Military District, that the U.S. was prepared to take action against the Creek Confederacy. Both Georgia and Mississippi called up militia forces to deal with the Red Sticks, and a faction of Creeks, known as the Lower Creeks, joined the American forces.

John Armstrong Jr, Illustration
John Armstrong. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Lake Erie

On September 10, American naval forces under the command of Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie. The decisive victory gave the United States control of the Great Lakes for the remainder of the war. 

Following the defeat at Lake Erie, British forces retreated to Detroit, allowing General Harrison to gather his forces and move into Canada. Harrison engaged the combined British-Indian forces on October 5 at the Battle of the Thames.

American forces shouted “Remember the Raisin!” as they smashed into British forces. Tecumseh was killed in the battle, breaking his confederation and essentially ending Indian resistance to American expansion in the Northwest.

British forces eventually abandoned Detroit, allowing the Americans to retake the fort.

Battle of Lake Erie, British Surrender, 1813, NYPL
This illustration depicts the British surrender at the Battle of Lake Erie. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Hampton and Wilkinson Fail to Capture Montreal

Following his failure to find success, General Dearborn resigned. Afterward, General Wade Hampton and General James Wilkinson led American forces and pushed toward Montreal. Hampton’s advance was stopped at the Battle of the Chateauguay (October 26). Wilkinson was defeated at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm (November 11) and then failed to capture Lacolle Mills. The defeats effectively ended American hopes to capture Montreal and secured British control of the St. Lawrence River.

Andrew Jackson Engages the Creek

Hostilities in the Creek War continued as Tennessee Militia forces, led by General Andrew Jackson, joined the fight. On November 3, General John Coffee led American Dragoons to victory at the Battle of Tallushatchee. From there, Coffee joined with Jackson and defeated Red Sticks at the Battle of Talladega (November 9).

By the end of 1813, the war was essentially at a stalemate, with neither side making significant gains.

The War in 1814

In 1814, a group of young American military leaders rose to prominence, including Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, Jacob Brown, George Izard, and Edmund Pendleton Gaines.

Battle of Horseshoe Bend and Treaty of Fort Jackson

The Creek War turned in favor of the United States in March. Andrew Jackson led his forces, which were made up of U.S. troops, Tennessee Militia, Georgia Militia, Creek Warriors, and Cherokee Warriors to victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, effectively ending the conflict. 

Rather than single out the Red Sticks, Jackson forced all Creek factions to agree to the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which ceded roughly 23 million acres of land to the United States, land that is present-day Alabama and parts of Georgia. 

Battle of Horseshoe Bend, 1814, NYPL
This illustration depicts the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Wilkinson Captures Mobile

It was around this time that issues started to come to the forefront between the United States and Spain. In March, General James Wilkinson captured and occupied Mobile, Alabama. Then, in April, the British started working with the Creek Red Sticks, who took refuge in Spanish-held Florida.

Britain Sends Reinforcements

After Napoleon abdicated the throne of France, Great Britain was able to focus on the war with the United States. As a result, veteran British troops were removed from Europe and redeployed to North America.

Another Invasion of Canada Stalls

In July, American forces launched another invasion of Canada, led by General Jacob Brown. Americans won the Battle of Chippawa (July 5) but were later forced to withdraw from the Niagara Region after the inconclusive Battle of Lundy’s Lane (July 25). However, they successfully defended Fort Erie (August 15).

Meanwhile, Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, approved a plan to retake Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island. The American forces were delayed, giving the British time to prepare for the attack, which took place on August 4. Indian forces ambushed the Americans and forced them to retreat. The Americans were eventually forced to leave the island, and the British retained control.

British Forces Burn Washington D.C.

Following the arrival of reinforcements from Europe, the British launched a combined army and naval campaign in the Chesapeake Bay area. In August, American forces were routed at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 24). The victory allowed the British to march into Washington D.C., where they occupied the city and burned the Capitol and White House.

Burning of Washington DC, 1814, Illustration
This illustration depicts British forces burning Washington D.C. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Peace Talks Begin

Soon after, both nations, weary of the war, agreed to open peace negotiations and commissioners traveled to Ghent, Belgium to meet. The American commissioners were:

Despite the peace talks, the war continued.

American Victories at Plattsburgh and on Lake Champlain

The British sent an invasion force out of Canada, targeting New York, but it was defeated by American land and naval forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh (September 11) and the Battle of Lake Champlain (September 11). The British commander, General George Prévost, retreated to Canada.

Battle of Baltimore

Back in Washington D.C., the British made plans to attack Baltimore, which had been heavily fortified by the Americans, and attacked on September 12. The British failed to break the American lines and turned to a bombardment of Fort McHenry that lasted for approximately 25 hours. Unable to destroy the fort, British forces withdrew.

The exploding shells in the night sky over Fort McHenry inspired eyewitness Francis Scott Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which became the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Bombardment of Ft McHenry, 1814, Illustration, NYPL
This illustration depicts the Bombardment of Fort McHenry. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Jackson Drives the British out of Pensacola

By November, a British force was located at Pensacola, Florida, with the approval of the Spanish Governor. Many Creek refugees sought protection at Pensacola and General Jackson decided to pursue them. Jackson attacked Pensacola on November 7. By November 9, the British evacuated the city, giving Jackson another victory in the war. From Pensacola, Jackson moved to Mobile, which is where he expected to find the British. However, when he arrived he learned the British were threatening New Orleans.

Hartford Convention

Opposition to the war continued, especially in New England. In the fall, Massachusetts called for a meeting of the New England states. The delegates, mainly Federalists, gathered in Hartford, Connecticut in December. The Hartford Convention lasted until early 1815, and the members produced a document that outlined the grievances of the New England states and a list of recommendations for amending the Constitution. In the wake of the convention, rumors spread that the delegates threatened secession from the Union.

Treaty of Ghent

As 1814 came to its end, the negotiators at Ghent came to an agreement. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, effectively ending the war. Three days later, Britain ratified the treaty. However, British and American forces that were still fighting had no idea peace had been achieved, and the war continued.

Treaty of Ghent, Peace Commissioners, 1814
This illustration depicts the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The War in 1815

By early January, Jackson and his army were entrenched at New Orleans. British forces attacked on January 8 and were soundly defeated by Jackson. As news of the victory spread, word also came that the war was over. A wave of Patriotism swept over the United States, initiating the “Era of Good Feelings.” 

The Treaty of Ghent was then ratified by President Madison on February 16, 1815. In the aftermath of the war, the reputation of the Federalist Party, which had opposed the war and was responsible for the Hartford Convention, fell out of favor.

War of 1812 Significance

The War of 1812 is important to United States history because it was viewed as a victory over Great Britain. It reaffirmed America’s independence, ushered in the “Era of Good Feelings,” and started the expansion of the United States past the Louisiana Territory. The war also marked the rise of men like William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun, who would play important roles in shaping the trajectory of the United States leading up to the Civil War.

General William Henry Harrison, Portrait, Peale
William Henry Harrison. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

War of 1812 APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the War of 1812, Manifest Destiny, and the Era of Good Feelings for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

War of 1812 APUSH Definition

The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1815. The war was sparked by a variety of issues, including British interference with American trade and the impressment of American sailors by the British Navy. The war was marked by several significant military engagements, including the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of New Orleans. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, which established the status quo ante bellum.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

War of 1812 Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the Daily Bellringer provides a quick overview of the Causes of the War of 1812.

War of 1812 Terms and Definitions

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions are related to the War of 1812.

Berlin Decree (1806)

The Berlin Decree, issued by Napoleon in 1806, was a key policy of the Continental System. This decree declared a comprehensive trade embargo against Britain and its allies, aiming to isolate Britain economically and weaken its global influence. It prohibited any neutral nation from trading with Britain, including the United States.

British Orders in Council

The Orders in Council were British laws passed from 1807-1812 that imposed blockades and restrictions on American trade with France. They allowed the Royal Navy to intercept American ships headed to French ports or continental Europe and seize their goods. The escalating Orders in Council disrupted U.S. trade and were a major factor in increasing tensions with Britain in the years before the War of 1812.

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair (1807)

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair was a naval incident that occurred in 1807 between the United States and Great Britain. The incident involved the British warship HMS Leopard, which fired on and captured the American frigate USS Chesapeake. The incident, which took place during the Napoleonic Wars, caused outrage in the United States and contributed to the tensions between the two countries that eventually led to the War of 1812.

Embargo Act (1807)

The Embargo Act of 1807 was a U.S. law that prohibited the export of American goods to foreign countries. The Embargo Act was passed by Congress in response to a series of trade disputes with European powers, particularly Great Britain and France, which had been restricting American trade and seizing American vessels. The Embargo Act was intended to pressure these powers to respect American neutrality and the rights of American merchants, but it had unintended consequences and was widely unpopular. The Embargo Act led to economic hardship and widespread discontent in the United States, and it was eventually repealed in 1809.

Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts fought between France, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, and various European powers from 1803 to 1815. These wars resulted from Napoleon’s ambitions to expand his empire, ultimately destabilizing the European balance of power. The impact of these conflicts, including trade restrictions and naval confrontations, significantly influenced the United States’ decision to engage in the War of 1812.

Napoleon’s Continental System

Napoleon’s Continental System was a French policy implemented during the Napoleonic Wars that aimed to weaken Britain economically by blocking its trade with continental Europe. This system imposed a strict embargo on British goods, forcing other European countries to abstain from trade with Britain. It ultimately contributed to tensions between the United States and Britain, leading to the War of 1812.

Non-Intercourse Act (1809)

Non-Intercourse Act — A law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1809 that prohibited American trade with Great Britain and France. The act was intended to pressure the two countries to respect American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars, which were being fought in Europe at the time. The act was one of several measures taken by the United States to maintain its neutrality in the conflict, and it was eventually replaced by other measures, including the 

Macon’s Bill No. 2 (1810)

Macon’s Bill No. 2 was a law passed by Congress in 1810 that lifted the trade restrictions imposed by the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. The bill, which was sponsored by Representative Nathaniel Macon, allowed American trade with both Great Britain and France, but it also stipulated that if either country stopped violating American neutrality, the United States would cut off trade with the other country. The bill was intended to pressure the two countries to respect American neutrality, but it ultimately failed to achieve this goal and was replaced by other measures.

Milan Decree (1807)

The Milan Decree, issued by Napoleon in 1807, further reinforced the Continental System by expanding trade restrictions against Britain. This decree declared that any neutral ship that had traded with Britain or submitted to British naval authority would be subject to seizure by French forces. The Milan Decree further strained relations between the United States and France, as American ships became targets in the escalating conflicts and trade restrictions.

Tecumseh

Tecumseh was a Native American Indian leader of the Shawnee people and a key figure in the resistance to American expansion in the early 19th century. Tecumseh was a charismatic speaker and military leader who worked to unite the Native American tribes in the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley against the United States. He is best known for his role in the Indian Wars of the period and his alliance with the British during the War of 1812.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The War of 1812 — America’s Second War for Independence
  • Date 1812–1815
  • Author
  • Keywords War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Henry Dearborn, James Wilkinson, Battle of New Orleans, Era of Good Feelings, Hartford Convention
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 14, 2023

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