An American Perspective on the War of 1812
by Donald Hickey
The War of 1812 is probably our most obscure conflict. Although a great deal has been written about the war, the average American is only vaguely aware of why we fought or who the enemy was. Even those who know something about the contest are likely to remember only a few dramatic moments, such as the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the burning of the nation’s capital, or the Battle of New Orleans.
A British Perspective
by Andrew Lambert
The War of 1812 has been referred to as a victorious “Second War for Independence,” and used to define Canadian identity, but the British only remember 1812 as the year Napoleon marched to Moscow. This is not surprising. In British eyes, the conflict with America was an annoying sideshow. The Americans had stabbed them in the back while they, the British, were busy fighting a total war against the French Empire, directed by their most inveterate enemy. For a nation fighting Napoleon Bonaparte, James Madison was an annoying irrelevance. Consequently the American war would be fought with whatever money, manpower and naval force that could be spared, no more than seven percent of the total British military effort.
A Canadian Perspective on the War of 1812
by Victor Suthren
When the American declaration of war fell upon the disparate colonies of British North America, it produced reactions as different as the character of each colony. But the people of the Canadian colonies were united in the belief that this was an unwanted war, governed more by the distant preoccupations of London or Washington than the needs and wishes of the King’s subjects in North America.
A Native Nations Perspective on the War of 1812
by Donald Fixico
The War of 1812 was an important conflict with broad and lasting consequences, particularly for the native inhabitants of North America. During the pivotal years before the war, the United States wanted to expand its territories, a desire that fueled the invasion of native homelands throughout the interior of the continent. [Miller, p.47] Tribal nations of the lower Great Lakes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and others saw their lands at risk. The same was true for the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw in the south.
Black Sailors and Soldiers in the War of 1812
In 1813 Charles Ball, an escaped slave and self-declared “free man of color,” had a choice. He could row out to the British fleet, moored in the Chesapeake Bay, and offer his services to the King -- or he could volunteer for the fledgling American navy and defend his country. Ball, whose dramatic bid for freedom is chronicled in The Life of Charles Ball, A Black Man, chose the latter and he was not alone.
Military Medicine in the War of 1812
There is hardly on the face of the earth a less enviable situation than that of an Army Surgeon after a battle – worn out and fatigued in body and mind, surrounded by suffering, pain, and misery, much of which he knows it is not in his power to heal…. I never underwent such fatigue as I did the first week at Butler's Barracks. The weather was intensely hot, the flies in myriads, and lighting on the wounds, deposited their eggs, so that maggots were bred in a few hours.
Tiger Dunlop, British surgeon to the 89th (The Pricess Victoria’s) Regiment of Foot, War of 1812.
Naval Battleships in the War of 1812
When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the U.S. Navy was an eighteen-year-old institution with barely a dozen ships to its name. The British Royal Navy, by contrast, had been operating for centuries, and could boast over five hundred active warships. Eighty-five of these ships were sailing American waters at the time war broke out.
Prisoners of War in 1812
Military captives in the War of 1812 posed a particular problem for both sides. Neither the British nor the Americans could maintain large prisons – they lacked the military facilities and the manpower to hold soldiers for long periods of time. And, in a war that stretched along half of North America, prisoners posed a logistical nightmare – prisoners taken in battle were often hundreds of miles away from the nearest military garrison.
The British often paroled captured militiamen and army officers, releasing them after they’d made a pledge to stay out of the war for the duration.
Personal Journals from the War of 1812
For some of the participants in the War of 1812 the conflict was the defining moment of their lives, and they were well aware of it. A number of young soldiers penned brief diaries and journals that show how the war began for them as an adventure, but ended in many cases with injury, imprisonment and grief. For women, too, the war was a trial, a test of their fortitude and resourcefulness, but it was also a window onto a wider world. Their journals in turn have become our window onto a war that took place two centuries ago.
The Treaty of Ghent
James Madison had an opportunity to end the War of 1812 almost as soon as it began. The British had repealed the Orders in Council – rules that curbed American trade with Europe – and thus one of Madison’s major reasons for war was now moot. If the British had foregone the right to impress American sailors, Madison could well have gone back to Congress with the suggestion that hostilities cease immediately. However, the British considered impressment their right by custom, and believed it essential to their naval might. And so James Madison took his country to war.
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On June 17, 1940, the defeated French signed an armistice and quit World War II. Britain now stood alone against the power of Germany’s military forces, which had conquered most of Western Europe in less than two months. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill rallied his stubborn people and outmaneuvered those politicians who wanted to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. But Britain’s success in continuing the war would very much depend on the RAF Fighter Command’s ability to thwart the Luftwaffe’s efforts to gain air superiority. This then would be the first all-air battle in history.
Did You Know?
The battle received its name from a speech Winston Churchill delivered to the British House of Commons on June 18, 1940, in which he stated "The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin."
In fact, Britain’s situation was more favorable than most of the world recognized at the time. Britain possessed an effective air defense system, first-rate fighter pilots, and a great military leader in Air Marshal Hugh Dowding. On the other hand, the Germans had major problems: they had no navy left after the costly conquest of Norway, their army was unprepared for any form of amphibious operations, and the Luftwaffe had suffered heavy losses in the west (the first two factors made a seaborne attack on the British Isles impossible from the first).
Even more serious, the Germans had poor intelligence and little idea of British vulnerabilities. They wasted most of July in waiting for a British surrender and attacked only in August. Although air strikes did substantial damage to radar sites, on August 13–15 the Luftwaffe soon abandoned that avenue and turned to attacks on RAF air bases. A battle of attrition ensued in which both sides suffered heavy losses (an average loss of 21 percent of the RAF’s fighter pilots and 16 percent of the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots each month during July, August, and September).
For a time the advantage seemed to swing slightly in favor of the Germans, but a combination of bad intelligence and British attacks on Berlin led the Luftwaffe to change its operational approach to massive attacks on London. The first attack on London on September 7 was quite successful; the second, on September 15, failed not only with heavy losses, but also with a collapse of morale among German bomber crews when British fighters appeared in large numbers and shot down many of the Germans. As a result, Hitler permanently postponed a landing on the British Isles and suspended the Battle of Britain.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.