On the high seas, the War of 1812 is perhaps most remembered for two things. First, the impressment of United States citizens into service in the British Royal Navy; and secondly, for the naval engagements between the newly formed United States Navy and the powerful British Royal Navy.
Impressment and Commerce
Before the War of 1812 started, the British Empire already was engaged in war with Napoleonic France. Meanwhile, the United States was still a new nation. Even after 29 years of independence, the United States’ economy was still heavily dependent on trade with Great Britain, because Britain had the wealth and the goods Americans wanted to access.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Royal Navy was considered to be the largest and most powerful navy in the world. Its influence had spread from the English Channel to the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans, and even reached as far as the West Indies. The British Royal Navy dominated and kept control of the high seas by the use of their large and professional navy. In order to man and maintain Great Britain’s large fleets of ships, the British Royal Navy required tens of thousands of skilled sailors.
To meet the manpower demands, the British Royal Navy adopted a policy of ‘impressment.’ Impressment simply meant that British Royal Navy officers had the power to seize British citizens who were skilled sailors and force them into service. While the policy in theory only affected British sailors, in practice British naval officers would impress American citizens.
When the war started between Great Britain and France, the United States adopted a policy of neutrality, not only because the people wanted to stay out of the war, but also because there was a lot of money to be made in trade with both Great Britain and France. With most of the major powers of Europe fighting one on side or the other of the war, United States shipping companies were able to fulfill demands for shipping and trade from both Great Britain and France.
Sailing under a flag of neutrality, American ships were often seized by both British and French military vessels and inspected for contraband. During these inspections the military officers of one side would search for and arrest any citizens of the other side found on the American ships. While both the British and the French would seize goods from American ships bound for the enemy, British officers would additionally search for any skilled sailors who could possibly be identified as ‘British’, and impress them into service in the British Navy.
Most Americans were British decedents, which at times made it hard to distinguish between Americans and British subjects. Great Britain at the time did not recognize or accept that a British subject could emigrate from Great Britain and become a citizen of any other nation, the process of naturalization we know today. British citizens who were caught having left England to travel to the United States to become an American citizen were subject to impressment and forced into British naval service.
This outraged the American public for a couple of reasons. First, because a large number of Americans had been mistaken for British Citizens and were then impressed into British Naval Service. Secondly, because the United States was still a growing nation and directly profited from the large number of British and European immigrants.
The United States at War: The Chesapeake Campaign
Naval activity was not only a cause of war, but was also a significant mode of combat once the war started. When the United States declared war on Great Britain, the US’s strategy was to launch an invasion of Canada while simultaneously expanding westward and seizing territory from British-supported Native Americans. While the United States Army was engaged in these campaigns of conquest on land, the United States Navy was tasked with defending merchant shipping and the east coast from British invasion while simultaneously harassing British trade whenever possible.
In order to defend American harbors and the coast, a cash-strapped American government largely adopted a localized defense policy that required cities and states to build and bolster long-range canon batteries on the coast overlooking ports. The tiny U.S. navy originally focused on a few engagements in the Atlantic, and supporting the American army’s invasion of Canada, but also augmented its size by hiring private raiders, or privateers, to harass British merchant ships.
Once the War against Napoleon began to subside in 1814, the British responded to the United States’ invasion of Canada by sending a fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, to blockade the Chesapeake Bay and conduct raids along the coast. Great Britain still could not afford a full invasion of The United States. In fact, the British didn’t want to invade America. The majority of the Northern states had objected to the war with Great Britain, and continued to trade with British firms during the blockade.
The British, not wanting to lose the valuable trade with the North, instead focused on defending Canada and conducting raids against the Southern states. The Chesapeake Bay Campaign was the method for executing this strategy. The Fleet under Rear Admiral George Cockburn’s command would continue to conduct raids up and down the Chesapeake shoreline, hoping to draw American resources away from Canada while creating domestic strife in the United States.
In response to these raids, Joshua Barney created the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla. The flotilla was in reality a squadron of small and hastily-constructed gunboats, or barges, that were fitting with two or three cannons. These barges were much smaller then the British vessels, and so they were able to travel in and out of the shallow waters in the Chesapeake Bay and were successful in their attempts to harass the British Fleet, delaying British advances up the Patuxent river for three months in the summer of 1814.
In the end, however, the British army attacked the flotilla from land, and the British fleet continued to push up the Chesapeake Bay. A British Regiment under the command of General Robert Ross landed on shore, and marched on Washington D. C. The Royal Marines under General Robert Ross’ command burned the White House, The Capitol, and many other government offices to the ground. It is the only time in American History since the Revolutionary War, that the United States’ capital has been invaded.
While the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla and the Maryland militia were unable to stop the invasion and burning of Washington D.C., they were successful in creating resistance to British forces and slowing the British advance. The American seamen and militiamen of southern Maryland were outmanned and outmatched by the British forces, but still resisted.