The land conflict of the War of 1812 was both brutally violent and vastly widespread, with battles being waged from New Orleans in the American South to the Great Lakes of Canada, as far West as the Indiana Territory and on Maryland’s Chesapeake Coast. Fought between June 1812 and January 1815, these land battles seemed to follow a pattern of catastrophic defeat for the fledgling American army. From the failed invasions of Canada to the defeat at Bladensburg, Maryland and the subsequent sacking of our nation’s Capital, the land war was in many ways a textbook military disaster for the United States.
At the outset of the war, Great Britain boasted one of the most well-trained, well-equipped, and expertly deployed military forces of the day, with their numbers swelling to nearly 100,000 active duty troops. Many of these troops were deployed to the Iberian Peninsula to wage war with Napoleon, leaving a mere 7,000 British and Canadian Army regulars to defend their Empire’s interests in the Western Hemisphere. Though they were supported by some 10,000 militia and 3,500 Indian auxiliaries, the American army doubled their number. At nearly 50,000 bodies, the American Army dwarfed the British defense forces in North America.
For all their numbers, however, the American military largely consisted of militia, who only spent four days each year training as soldiers. Compared to British regulars, even those in North America who had not received as much combat experience as their European comrades, the Americans were amateurs. On the drill field as well as the battlefield, the British Army performed with so much coolness and precision, the American militia appeared as little more than a mob in a camp.
Land warfare in the 19th Century was centered around massed ranks of infantry armed with muzzle-loading firearms. Maneuvering effectively in these humongous formations (the front of which was up to 500 yards long) required much more training than just four days a year. British military experts of the day estimated that it took three years of training to build the average Royal infantryman.
The first land campaign of the war was the American invasion of Upper and Lower Canada, which was expected to be an easy success. According to Thomas Jefferson, the invasion of Canada would be simply a matter of marching. What was intended to be a rudimentary military movement quickly turned into one of the worst military disasters in American history. Unseasoned soldiers couple with a lack of competent general officers caused the campaign to end in a series of crushing defeats for the Americans. The U.S. Naval campaign on the Great Lakes ended in defeat as well.
In the Western Theater, from Ohio to the Indiana Territory, battles were few and far between, as the United States had few military outposts West of the Mississippi. Nearly all of them fell to the British or were abandoned over the course of the war.
The most famous events of the War of 1812 occurred in the Chesapeake theater. In 1814, the defeat of Napoleon in Europe allowed Great Britain to take a more aggressive strategy in the American war. Noting the strategic importance of the Chesapeake, the British blockaded the bay and began raiding American towns. In August of 1814, a force of 4,500 British regulars under Major General John Ross was transported up the Chesapeake and into the Patuxent River, where they landed and routed the American army at Bladensburg, Maryland.
The defeat at Bladensburg left nothing between the British army and the American Capital. On 24 August, the British entered Washington, D.C., and began systematically burning all of its public buildings. Before the Presidential mansion was torched, a contingent of British soldiers ate the dinner that had been prepared for President James Madison before he left the city.
After Washington was sacked, the British turned their eyes on Baltimore, a key port city and the origin of many of the privateers who had been harassing the British Navy. The British landed once again at North Point, where a skirmish with American militia resulted in the death of the British Major General Ross. The British withdrew, and attacked once again from the sea, but were repelled at Fort McHenry. The battle there inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become the American National Anthem.
Perhaps the most peculiar and successful events for the Americans occurred in the Southern theater. In 1814, Andrew Jackson organized a ragtag group of American and French militia, Choctaw and Cherokee warriors, freed slaves, and American regulars. His goal was to defeat the Creek tribe, who were allies of the British. After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, a decisive victory for Jackson, he received word that the British were organizing a large landing force near Pensacola, Florida. After taking the Spanish-ruled town (without orders to invade Spanish territory, and therefore nearly sparking another international conflict with Spain), Jackson marched along the Gulf Coast, assembling a force of 4,000 militia by the time he reached New Orleans in December, 1814. The ensuing battle on January 8th, 1815 was the most notable American victory of the war. The British suffered over 2,000 casualties to the American’s 71.
However, in an ironic twist, none of the combatants in the battle knew that the war had been formally ended two weeks before. The Treaty of Ghent, signed in Belgium, promised to end the hostilities, but word of it had not reached America yet and Congress had not ratified the treaty. In the end, the country’s greatest victory had little impact on the outcome of the war, though it transformed Jackson into a national hero.
Except for Jackson’s victories, the American army’s land campaigns of the War of 1812 were marred by catastrophe and defeat. Few changes were made as a result of the military’s poor performance during the war, and the American army would continue to re-evaluate and re-structure itself over the rest of the 19th Century.
Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Land Warfare, (New York: W.W. Norton), 2001.
Gleig, Robert. A Subaltern in America: Comprising his Narrative of the Campaigns of the British Army (Philadelphia, 1833), 67.
Heidler, David and Jeanne Heidler, The War of 1812, (Westport, Conneticut; 2002), 171.
James Wilson to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Ratification Convention, December 11, 1787, Elliot , Debates, II, 521.
Latimer, Jon. 1812: War with America, (United States, 2007), 10.
Robert Kerby. The Militia System and the State Militias in the War of 1812, Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 73, No. 2 (1977).
Smolinski, Diane and Henry Smolinski. Battles of the War of 1812, (Chicago: Heinemann, 2003).