An Inglorious War

It was on this day in 1812 that British forces led by General Sir Isaac Brock soundly and roundly defeated American regulars under General Stephen Van Rensselaer at the Battle of Queenston (Queenstown) in Ontario.

The loss was significant for the United States as it precluded any invasion or conquest of Canada. More than 1,000 U.S. regular troops were captured, killed, or wounded by the victorious British. (I emphasize the fact that the U.S. troops involved were regular Army because there was a sizable contingent of various state militia troops who declined to take part in the battle, preferring to remain on the U.S. side of the Niagara River while the regulars were slaughtered.)

This battle was not unique in the history of this little-remembered and and strange war; U.S. ground forces were almost uniformly defeated when they engaged British troops throughout the conflict. Indeed, the only major land battle in which U.S. forces gained a notable victory was The Battle of New Orleans (8 January 1815) which was fought after the peace treaty ending the war had been signed! (24 December 1814.)

This is not necessarily a criticism of the U.S. Army, though. At the time of this conflict Britain had what was perhaps the most well-trained and battle-hardened Army in the world. Other countries had bigger armies (France, Russia) and others had well-trained armies (Prussia, Sweden) but no other troops had such a combination of training and experience. Britain had been fighting Napoleon’s French Empire for more than a decade when it engaged the U.S. in war. The U.S. had no similar experience, and it had limited military resources.

At sea, the matter was dramatically reversed. Though Britain had the largest and most powerful navy in the world with 1,048 major warships in service around the globe, in battle after battle Yankee sailors bested British tars. These actions were nearly all single ship contests, though there were major fleet actions on Lake Erie (Oliver Perry’s famous “We have met the enemy and he is ours,”) and on Lake Champlain.

There have been many theories advanced to explain how the tiny U.S. Navy (14 warships) could consistently defeat the mighty Royal Navy. It seems that a combination of the superior maneuverability of American ships, a result of innovative American shipwrights being allowed to innovate (the Royal Navy was decidedly anti-innovation) and the superior morale of U.S. sailors proved crucial. (The Royal Navy had endemic morale problems due to poor conditions, harsh discipline, and impressments.) Basically, the new U.S. Navy, small as it was, could outrun, outfight, and outshoot the Limeys.

As wars go, The War of 1812 was a toss-up for American military bragging rights. The U.S. did well at sea, but could not really make a crucial dent in the Royal Navy. The U.S. did poorly on land, but Britain was too busy in Europe to invest the massive commitment of men and materiel necessary to consolidate their victories. British generals, in fact, were forbidden to hold territory. The U.S. made a successful raid on the capital of British Canada, York, Ontario (now known as Toronto) and burned it to the ground (8 May 1813.) In retaliation, the British burned the infant city of Washington, D.C. (24 August 1814; how many school kids recall learning that we burned their capital first? York was just a muddy frontier outpost in those days, but Washington, D.C. was little better.)

The war eventually ended. Great Britain had bigger fish to fry with Napoleon loose on the continent, and the U.S. was tired of getting pasted in land battles. Britain made concessions which allowed the U.S. to proclaim victory. The United States never again attempted to invade or conquer Canada (militarily, at least! ;-)) and Britain stopped impressing American sailors, and relinquished its fortresses in the Northwest and Mississipi Valley regions.

All in all, it was a pretty dreadful war without much point. But the U.S. did get what it insisted upon from Britain, and Francis Scott Key wrote a nifty poem after seeing the British bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore. That poem, sung to the tune of the old Beer Hall Ballad Anacreon in Heaven, is now our national anthem.

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