James P. Werbaneth
American Military University
La Roche College

 A Paper presented to the New York Military Affairs Symposium on 31 March 2012
|as part of a 3-day War of 1812 in New York and Beyond conference
supported in part by a grant from the  New York Council for the Humanities.


            Britain, at least as much as the United States, entered into the War of 1812 reluctantly.  After all, Britain was absorbed since 1793 with a much more important struggle, that against France.[1]  Indeed, Napoleon was the central concern of Robert Banks Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool, when he formed his government on 8 June 1812, with the new war in America as nothing more than a distraction.[2] 


On the American side, there was no enthusiastic rush to war either, and it was, ironically, concentrated in areas removed from both aggrieved parties and the ensuing zone of conflict around New York and New England.  A disproportionate share of the support for the war came from the West and South, with the Northeast, particularly New York, New Jersey, and New England especially opposed.[3]  Further, opposition to the war was centered on the Federalist Party, but also included some more traditional members of James Madison’s own Democratic-Republican Party.[4]  Samuel Eliot Morrison described the polarization of American thought on the war by writing that:


[New England] wanted no part of the war and agitated against it to the brink of treason; whilst back-country congressmen who had never smelt salt water (unless in the Potomac)  and whose constituents would as soon have thought of flying to the moon as enlisting in the United States Navy, screamed for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”[5]


            British strategy in this war, unwanted by their own government and by much of the American electorate and political elite, faced both challenges and opportunities.  The main challenge was obvious; Britain was already involved in a massive war against Napoleon, on the eve of his own invasion of Russia.  Less obvious, Canada was subject to a constant influx of immigrants, from the United States.  While many were favored for their perceived superior skills at frontier living, compared to more urban-oriented immigrants from the British Isles, Canada experienced anti-American sentiment that impeded the ability of Americans to purchase land there.  With this general anti-Americanism expanding with the start of the war,[6] British strategists had to consider the presence of a large, alienated American population within Canada.  This was concentrated in Upper Canada, the future Ontario, especially; there about one-third of the population of 100,000 was American, either by birth or descent.[7]  Further, Canada was not especially well garrisoned, and what militia there was might well rally to the Americans.  Governor David Tomkins of New York expected that one half of the militia in both Upper and Lower Canada would switch sides.[8]


            At the same time, Britain faced opportunities.  The polarization of the American body politic over the War of 1812 ended up seriously undermining the American war effort, especially in New England, and as Morrison describes verged on treason.  Further, American merchants, again primarily in New England but not limited to it, desired to maintain trade with the British, even though they were now the enemy.  After all, three-quarters of American ships originated in New England, and an even greater proportion of the sailors,[9] and it was their livelihoods that were most endangered by interdictions on trade with Britain.


            Due to its own lack of commitment to hostilities with the United States, Britain was not aggressive in its strategy toward New York and New England, at least until Napoleon abdicated in April 1814.  Military strategy in Canada tended to be defensive in nature, even passive.  Economically, Britain took advantage of the desire of American shippers and merchants to maintain trade, and yet did little or nothing to undermine the United States politically; America’s own political setbacks were largely self-inflicted through the actions of its own deeply partisan leaders.  Ultimately, Britain’s strategy toward New York and New England was defensive, reactive, and strangely to modern eyes at least, largely passive.




            Despite having one war already, and not needing a sideshow conflict with the United States, British policy at first seemed determined to achieve this very outcome.  As part of its campaign of economic warfare against France and its allies, Britain imposed new restrictions on American shipping, including a policy stating that any ship, including that of a neutral, that entered an enemy port was subject to seizure by the British.  This affected the United States as the leading neutral shipper, especially as American shippers were in the practice of embarking cargoes in French-dominated Europe, shipping them to the United States, and then exporting them to the United Kingdom.[10]


            Previously, until the rise of Napoleon, Anglo-American relations had been much more pleasant, even cooperative.  Britain aided the fledgling United States Navy in its Quasi-War with France in the Caribbean from 1798 to 1800,[11] and then assisted the Americans in the Barbary Wars, especially through allowing the United States to use Gibraltar as a base.[12]  Commercially, there was a healthy trade between the two English-speaking countries, and American foodstuffs were instrumental in feeding the British war effort in Spain and Portugal.[13]


            Despite the overall good economic and naval relations between Britain and the United States at the start of the nineteenth century, it was not unqualified pleasantness, and a favored trading relationship had its limits.  Immediately after Independence, John Baker-Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, argued that Britain could absorb American commerce without the expense of governing the former colonies.  He suggested that American goods be diverted to British vessels whenever possible and, believing that the United States was already on the verge of breaking up, considered  that British commercial power might coerce New England back into the Empire.[14]


            Resulting British trade policies did not completely follow Sheffield’s views, and there was no overt attempt to detach New England from the United States.  The Orders in Council of 1783 prohibited American vessels from trading directly with Canada or the West Indies.  Despite Sheffield’s suggestions, goods could be exported to Britain on either British or American vessels, almost on the former colonial basis.  Still, this British generosity was not protected by a commercial treaty, and thus could be revoked at any time by London.[15]


            British actions toward American trade changed from amicable exploitation to pressure and coercion gradually, especially after the beginning of Napoleon’s Continental System in 1806.  From that point, relations became increasingly acrimonious, as Napoleon’s issuance of his Berlin Decree, banning trade with Britain. Britain responded in kind, instituting an economic war that damaged France and its allies and conquered states far more than the Continental System harmed Britain. [16]


At the same time, Britain stepped up its attempts to fulfill the Royal Navy’s manpower needs with impressment, including from American ships.  With the increasing pressure on the United States, the formerly pleasant working relationship gave way to deteriorating relations, and even armed conflict.  Most famous was the attack of HMS Leopard on the American frigate Chesapeake in 1807, when the British ship fired on the American one, forcing it to strike its colors.  The British boarded the Chesapeake and removed four sailors, one Briton and three Americans, alleged to be Royal Navy deserters.  Less remembered, the American frigate President severely damaged the British sloop Little Belt, with little damage to itself in this case.  Each side accused the other of being the aggressor.[17]


            The American response to growing tensions was to pass the Embargo Act on 22 December 1807, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson.  This prohibited all exports, and banned the import of some British goods as well.  Though meant to pressure Britain, in a stroke it snuffed out a highly profitable trade vital to the economic growth of the United States, and especially its port cities.[18]  Even with the repeal of the Embargo Act, relations between the United States and Britain continued to deteriorate, in part because Britain’s civilian leaders refused to compromise, even when compromise was decidedly in their long-term interests.


            British civilian leaders were strangely obtuse to the effects that their coercive and confrontational policies had in the United States, and that British actions raised the probability of war.  For example, after the inauguration of James Madison in 1809, the British minister to Washington, David Erskine, concluded an agreement with the United States that would resume the mutually profitable trade between the countries, while dropping most of Britain’s measures against the former colonies, and ignoring such unpleasantness as the attack on the Chesapeake.  Britain’s economic interests were to be further upheld by prohibiting American trade with France.  However, despite the merits of this agreement to Britain, the foreign minister, Lord George Canning, repudiated both it and Erskine.[19]  Erskine was recalled to Britain and replaced by Sir James Jackson, who was so arrogant that Madison dismissed him, and then failing to reinstitute an embargo on trade with Britain, looked for other alternatives to secure America’s rights as a neutral.[20]


            British politics were complicated not just by the exigencies of war, but by dynastic questions.  King George III was descending into another bout of madness in 1810, requiring a regency under his son, the future George IV.  Unfortunately the Prince of Wales, while witty and gifted socially, was also so self-centered and profligate that even before ascending to the throne himself in 1820, he was a “national joke,” in the words of a later BBC profile.[21]  In addition, Prince George had his share of political grudges, hating the Tories who surrounded the throne of his father, while adhering for his own part with Whigs and liberals.[22]


While the Prince of Wales awaited an act of Parliament granting him his regency, the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, became in the words of Henry Adams, “for a time the King of England, but a king without title.”[23]  Perceval certainly counted as one of those Tories whom the Prince of Wales despised, and also a hard-liner when it came to the rights of neutrals.[24]  At the time of his appointment by George III on 4 October 1809, Perceval had a weak administration, with few willing to serve in his cabinet.  The dearth of willing ministers was so pronounced that he could not find a replacement for his old post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and therefore had to retain that post himself.[25]


            The Americans thought in late 1810 that in a few months, a British government more friendly to them might replace Perceval and the Tories, or at least the current administration would be so weakened that an Anglo-American war would not be as great a danger.[26]  However, Perceval was able to maintain his position, and the Tories maintained Orders in Council against American trade onerous to the United States, even as key members left the cabinet.  Ultimately, Perceval’s administration came to an end, in a manner unique among British prime ministers: On 11 May 1812, he was assassinated on his way to Parliament.[27]


            Perceval was succeeded by the Second Earl of Liverpool on 18 June, the same day that President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Britain.[28]  Liverpool did not begin in a position any more strong than that of the late Perceval; his government was weak and divided.  However, he was eventually able to stay in office for fifteen years,[29] quite an accomplishment considering the tumult and instability of British parliamentary politics early in the nineteenth century.


            Liverpool’s main strategic concern was Napoleon, not the United States, and he saw war with the latter as a distraction from the former.  Thus, early in his administration he repealed the Orders in Council that had so infuriated the Americans; unfortunately the slowness of transatlantic communications meant that the news of this key concession did not reach Washington until war was already declared.[30] 

Once war with the United States was underway, Liverpool persisted in seeing it as a diversion from the main struggle against France, and one with little or no domestic support at that.  Therefore he devoted only secondary resources and attention to North America, at least until Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814, and even then he was more concerned with forging a lasting peace in Europe than prosecuting another conflict across the Atlantic.  Thus Liverpool, from the beginning of the War of 1812, was eager to make peace on any reasonable terms.[31]



            While overall British strategy leading to the war was marked by an arrogant disregard toward the United States and domestic confusion, strategy and politics in Canada were much more stable.  Parallel with Liverpool’s goal of getting Britain out of the War of 1812 at the soonest available opportunity, Sir George Prevost mandated a military strategy that was defensive, cautious, and more concerned with safeguarding Canada than actively working to defeat the United States.


            Prevost was born in New Jersey, the son of a Swiss-born, French-speaking Protestant officer in British service.  His grandfather was a wealthy banker from Amsterdam, whose fortune probably accelerated George Prevost’s rise through the British army.[32]  He enjoyed a distinguished reputation as a soldier, especially for service in the West Indies, including as second in command of an expedition against Martinique, and as the military governor of the French-speaking island of St. Lucia.[33]  After a period in England, where he commanded troops in Hampshire and was made a baronet, he was sent to Nova Scotia as lieutenant governor, with the local rank of lieutenant general.  With war against America on the horizon, Britain was replacing civil administrators in Canada with professional soldiers.  Just as he had won over the French planters of St. Lucia, the bilingual and politically astute Prevost was an able administrator.  He balanced the interests of the established Church of England, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians adroitly.  To counter the American embargo against trade with the British, he designated several towns in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as “free ports,” where Americans could trade without paying British duties.  These ports benefited from lucrative trade not just with the United States, but also the West Indies.[34]

            Prevost became the overall commander of British forces in Canada on 4 July 1811, and in October he took over civil authority as governor general.  In one of his first acts, he won over the Catholic Church of Quebec, along with Lower Canada’s francophone political elite.  Preparing for war, he achieved passage of a stronger militia bill, and a guarantee that Canada would pay for its part in the war.  All of this made Canada stronger, and put it on a strong financial footing for the coming conflict.[35]

            Yet for all of his former boldness in the war against France, and his political acumen, Prevost’s actions in command made him appear a most timid solider.  On 10 July 1812 he wrote to his commander in Upper Canada, Major General Isaac Brock:


Our numbers would not justify offensive operations being undertaken, unless they are solely calculated to strengthen a defensive attitude.  I consider it prudent and politic to avoid any measure that can in its effect have a tendency to unite the people of the American States.  Whilst disunion prevails among them, their attempts on these provinces [Canada] will be feeble; it is, therefore, our duty carefully to avoid committing any act which may, even by construction, tend to unite the eastern and southern states, unless, by its perpetration, we are to derive a considerable and important advantage.[36]


Thus Prevost, characteristically, calculated the political along with military considerations.  In this case though, the answer yielded by his calculations was essentially defensive, even meek.

            Brock was of entirely different mind, and was prepared to put his thoughts into action.  In November 1811, after reading warlike pronouncements from James Madison, Brock came up with his own plan to deal with the Americans.  Brock balanced the key elements of naval command of the Great Lakes, the role of allied Indians, and logistics.  He believed that the center of gravity for the defense of Upper Canada lie around Amherstburg, on Canadian side of the southern end of the Detroit River.  In Brock’s view, neither the Indians nor the Canadian militia was fully reliable, and if left to their own devices, would probably fail to defend themselves.  He envisioned attacks on the American positions at Detroit and Fort Michlimakinac, off the northern tip of the Michigan Upper Peninsula, upon the commencement of hostilities.  From Amherstburg east to Fort Erie, Brock would rely on naval power to guard his flank.[37]

            Brock further anticipated that the Americans would invade Upper Canada along the Niagara River; all other American actions would be subordinate to this offensive, in his view.  Presciently, he expected the undisciplined enemy militia to be less than equal to the task.  Finally, he considered the defense of Kingston on the eastern end of Lake Ontario to be paramount.[38]  In all, Brock formulated a plan in which the British would begin the war with concentration in the west against Detroit and Michlimakinac, and economy of force elsewhere.  Further, rather than relying solely on the division and incompetence among the Americans to be his best defense, he desired to take the offensive and the initiative right away.

            Under normal circumstances, such stark differences in strategy between superior and subordinate would be a recipe for disaster.  However, in Upper Canada in 1812, distances were so great and communications so difficult that for the first four months of the war, Brock was free to do what he wanted, regardless of Prevost’s desires.  Additionally, while Prevost certainly offered little assistance to the intrepid Brock, he did equally little to get in his way.[39]

            One has to consider too that Brock was an energetic and gifted commander, with the boldness to do what he saw fit, regardless of orders from above with which he disagreed.  Henry Adams, as quintessentially an American a writer as there ever was, considered Brock’s appointment to command in Upper Canada to be a piece of “good fortune, or good judgment, more rare than could have been appreciated at the time.”[40]  He continued:


Brock was not only a man of unusual powers, but his powers were also in their prime.  Neither physical nor mental fatigue such as followed his rivals’ exertions paralyzed his plans.  Not scruples about bloodshed stopped him midway to victory.  He stood alone in his superiority as a soldier.[41]


            When the War of 1812 broke out, it was Brock’s strategic vision that was put into effect, not Prevost’s.  Brock gave Captain Charles Roberts at the isolated Fort St. Joseph freedom to act according to his own judgment, and Roberts used that judgment to take the American fort at Mackinac Island, despite the poor quality of his troops.  Roberts received this message on 8 July, and quickly augmented his undisciplined and drunken soldiers with Indians and employees of the North West Company.  The British, Canadians and Indians landed on the island, manhandled a single light artillery piece onto a ridge behind the fort, and quickly affected its surrender.  Not a single American shot was fired in defense.[42]

            Brock himself moved against Detroit, and an American army based there under the incompetent and timid command of Brigadier General William Hull.  Hull had crossed the Detroit River on 12 July, and Brock quickly countered.  He crossed the Detroit River, and the mere threat of an attack, including Britain’s Indian allies led by the redoubtable Tecumseh, was enough to compel Hull to surrender.  The victory gave Canadian morale a major boost, and lead to both depression and recriminations on the American side, especially toward the defeated commander.  Thomas Jefferson denounced the “treason, or the cowardice, or both, of Hull,” and demanded that the hapless general be shot or hanged.[43]

            The next stage of the war took place on the Niagara frontier, again in accord with Brock’s plan.  There was a delay, as Prevost sent a proposal for a truce to the senior American general in the area, Henry Dearborn.  This delayed both the American invasion from New York and the next battle until October.  Then an American army under Stephen Van Rensselaer, a Federalist political appointee chosen by the governor of New York to attract support from that most anti-war of political parties, crossed the Niagara, landing at Queenston.  The ensuing Battle of Queenston Heights was a major British victory, but the British suffered what was probably the most costly of casualties: Brock was killed in action.[44]

            Brock’s boldness and essential strategy died with him.  Under Prevost, the British would be more defensively-minded, and most battles would take place on their side of the Niagara River.  On 29 May 1813, Prevost personally led an amphibious attack on the American base at Sackett’s Harbor, New York, supported by a naval under Sir James Lucas Yeo.  The attack went badly, and out of 800 regulars landed, 52 were killed and 211 wounded, with most of the latter taken prisoner.  American losses came to 23 killed and 114 wounded.  The half-hearted British attack and subsequent reverse did not bring credit to either British commander.  Theodore Roosevelt compares Yeo and Prevost unfavorably to the leading American army commanders of the time:


But Sir George could not compare as a leader with Col. [Winfield] Scott or Gen. [Zebulon] Pike; and Sir James did not handle the gun-boats by any means as well as the Americans did with their schooners in similar attacks.  The admirers of Sir James lay the blame on Sir George, and vice versa; but in reality neither seems to have done particularly well.[45]


            Prevost and the British remained committed to seizing Sackett’s Harbor, and in 1814 benefited from Napoleon’s abdication, as the British government saw fit to shift veteran regiments to Canada.  The British in Canada were constrained by their logistics though, and had actually become dependent on food smuggled from American sources; by August Prevost estimated that two thirds of his 17,000 soldiers were eating American beef.  In addition, it was impossible to build up supplies until the roads froze, and while Prevost expected to take the offensive in 1815, he was under political pressure to do something before winter.[46]

            The result was a combined operation up the Richelieu River into Lake Champlain, with Plattsburgh, New York as the objective.  This paralleled the fateful campaign of 1777, when John Burgoyne had taken the same route to disaster at Saratoga.  But even if Prevost, now struggling to command the largest force of his career while handicapped by failing health, failed to achieve a decisive victory, control of Lake Champlain would be an advantage in 1815.  Perhaps because of these factors, and his awareness of Burgoyne’s unhappy fate, Prevost conducted a campaign in a way that “suggests a deep personal uncertainty,” according to the American historian John R. Elting.  Ultimately, this uncertain, tentative campaign ended with a naval battle and American victory near Crab Island on 11 September 1814; without his fleet, Prevost was compelled to retreat back toward Montreal.[47] 

His army abandoned much of its supplies in the process, and its morale was shattered.  Prevost’s reputation, gained with so much gallantry and political sagacity before the war, was in tatters, and Yeo brought official charges of misconduct.  Less critical was the Duke of Wellington, who felt that command of the lakes was a prerequisite of campaigning along America’s northern border.  If anything, Wellington was prone to blame his own veterans, believing that they needed his own “iron hand” to command them.[48]

There were two other significant British incursions into American territory.  In December 1813, the British crossed the Niagara River and took Fort Niagara through a coup de main, allegedly assisted by an American prisoner who gave away the fort’s countersign, and an American commander reported to be two miles away at the time, and extremely drunk.  A larger British force followed this first one and marched up the American shore of the Niagara River, burning settlements up to several miles inland without much effective resistance.  Then a second British raid began on December 30; this one was, if anything, even more destructive than the first.  This time, the British burned Buffalo, killing American civilians throughout their march.  Even so, Prevost’s public pronouncements following this attack were characterized as much by sorrow as anger at retaliating for American attacks on Canada, stating that his actions were “so little congenial to the British character.”[49]

            While the raids along the Niagara were just that, raids, the British made a more serious attempt to take and hold American territory through an invasion of Maine in September 1814, led by New Brunswick’s governor general, Lieutenant General Sir John Sherbrooke.  Using reinforcements from Europe, Sherbrooke attacked Fort Madison at the mouth of the Penobscot on 1 September, easily takng the post after token resistance.  As he exploited his success, the incursion took on the aspects of a large-scale raid up the Penobscot and then east to Machias, with much of the barbarity exhibited by the British when they ventured east of the Niagara.[50]  However, in the face of badly-organized American resistance, the British were left in control of the Maine wilderness east of the Penobscot.[51]

            Thus after the loss of Sir Isaac Brock, the dominant British strategist on the New York and New England frontiers was Sir George Prevost and all of his defensive-mindedness, caution and timidity when on the attack.  However, this can be seen as consistent with much of Britain’s overall land and naval strategy, with most attacks on the United States itself, including the burning of Washington, being raids.  The one exception was Sherbrooke’s invasion of Maine.

In Britain, Lord Liverpool saw an alternative, one that promised to inject an offensive spirit and raised morale for the army, along with fear for the Americans.  That solution was to send Wellington to command the forces arrayed against America.  As Britain’s foremost soldier, arguably its greatest ever, he was at first glance a logical choice.  In truth, Wellington had little concern for America, or the War of 1812, a conflict that he considered a marginal, irritating and unnecessary mistake.  In February 1814, he answered a government inquiry on the matter, and answered that Canada could be defended by controlling the Great Lakes, but beyond that, it would be very difficult to attack the United States successfully.  In fact, Wellington believed that North America could not support military operations that ventured far from the coast, or along navigable rivers or the lakes.[52]

            In November of the same year, Liverpool offered command in America to Wellington.  No doubt, they were of the same mind politically, and besides thinking of the war as a distraction, Wellington advocated abandoning all territorial demands in order to achieve peace more quickly.  Additionally, his appointment promised to put pressure on the Americans, and energize the morale of the Peninsular veterans already in North America.  Yet it is by no means certain that Liverpool actually intended to send Wellington to America, thinking that the mere threat that the Duke, leading his old veterans, would be enough to pressure the Americans without actually sending him.[53]  Historically, this proved prudent, as the Duke was needed to represent Britain at the Congress of Vienna, and then command the Anglo-Allied army that met a resurgent Napoleon at Waterloo.




            Anglo-Canadian economic strategy cannot be termed as passive or defensive, as can its military strategy.  Rather, it was opportunistic.  American merchants, shippers and farmers enjoyed a profitable trade with both Britain and Canada before the war, even through Jefferson’s embargo, and were determined to trade with the enemy once hostilities began.  British strategy was to accommodate them and profit by it.  There was no real need for the British to act; all they had to do was accommodate these Americans, and their determination to trade with the enemy.

            That determination ran deep.  On Christmas Day 1807, word reached New York City confirming the Embargo Act.  At once ship owners sent word to their vessels in the harbor to leave immediately; even partially-laden and half-manned merchantmen, and some without proper papers, sailed for the for open Atlantic.  While crowds of spectators cheered the fleeing ships from the wharves, federal government revenue cutters pursued them, some as far as thirty miles out to sea.[54]  It was not a good start to federal interdiction of trade with Britain, either from the perspective of the shipper’s efforts to escape it, or the support that they received.

            Jefferson’s embargo was no more popular inland than it was in the city.  Along the Vermont and New York borders with Canada, a virtual civil war erupted between government agents charged with enforcing the embargo, and residents equally bent on resisting it.  In the process, the president declared the Lake Champlain area in a state of rebellion on 19 April 1808.  In one case the Collector of Customs at Colchester, Vermont, one Jabez Penniman, suffered the indignity of having smugglers steal his revenue cutter.  The next spring, a converted ferryboat, the Black Snake, became a notorious smuggling vessel on Lake Champlain, and Penniman sent the Vermont militia to seize it.  Three militiamen died in the effort.  As for the smugglers captured with the Black Snake, one was hanged and three convicted of manslaughter.[55]

            Other violent incidents supported the declaration of insurrection.  Samuel Buell, the Customs Collector for Burlington, was caught by smugglers on the Richelieu River and dumped into the water for his trouble.  In another case to the west, at Oswego, New York, a mob of sixty armed men attacked the customs house.  Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin recommended that Jefferson declare this region too to be in a state of insurrection, but New York governor Daniel Tomkins advised otherwise; still Tomkins reinforced Oswego with state militia.  They did not fare much better, when an attack by another mob of about sixty men threatened to massacre the militia when its units seized a vessel allegedly loaded with contraband.  Local merchants then added to the part-time soldiers’ plight by refusing to sell them food.  Another militia unit faced not one but two posses, one of which tried to arrest the militia commander, when the troops seized a quantity of potash near Sandy Creek, midway between Sackett’s Harbor and Oswego.[56]

            Thus years before the War of 1812, people along the shores of Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario demonstrated an urgent desire to trade with Canada, regardless of legal prohibitions.  Moreover they were perfectly willing to take up arms to defend their perceived right to do so.  When war did break out, they were no less eager to trade with Canada or the British, as shown by Prevost’s eventual dependence on American beef to feed his own army.

            New England took, if anything, a bigger part in the illicit trade during the war, in large part because it could not afford to give up its commercial relationships with the British and Canadians, regardless of hostilities.  By the fall of 1813, there were about 250 idle merchantmen laid up in Boston Harbor, and people were leaving the city for work elsewhere.  When ships did sail, insurance costs cut deeply into the profits, as coverage cost upwards of seventy-five percent of the value of the cargo.  Credit dried up too, with one Boston merchant writing that it was difficult to buy anything except for immediate consumption, and then nothing could be had purchased at all except for cash.[57]

            American merchants proved inventive in their pursuit of illegal trade, and the British were accommodating.  Much of the commerce with Canada was conducted by sea.  Though some, especially food shipments, went from Massachusetts to Halifax in neutral vessels,  most of the ships were American.  They might rendezvous at sea with a neutral and transfer their cargoes, or on a coastal island.  Others though brazenly sailed directly to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.[58]

            These merchants further exploited the system of privateering encouraged by the federal government.  The War of 1812 saw many bogus “captures” of vessels as cover for trade in their cargoes, with the ships routinely ransomed for five to ten percent of their value.  Ironically, this was a practice that was sanctioned by the federal government, though not with smuggling in mind.[59]  In another inventive approach, British merchantmen called on American ports, after securing neutral papers from Swedish officials at St. Barthelemy in the Carribean.  The United States government protested, but the Swedes were slow to curtail the practice.[60]

            Recognizing that this trade was not just commercial in nature, but feeding the enemy army, in December 1813, Madison desperately tried to institute a new embargo to curtain the illicit trade.  There was no doubt that it was targeted against New England, and on 10 December Congress, in a secret session, approved this new embargo, with Madison signing it into law a week later.  It was enforced severely, but within a month Congress saw the need to loosen it, on behalf of Nantucket Island.  The embargo cut off the island from all traffic with the American mainland, and an exception had to be made to prevent starvation.  Still, as Henry Adams points out, there was no proven effect on trade with Canada.[61]

            There remained one huge loophole though, and that was privateering.  During the embargo, ostensible privateers would leave port, laden with cargo.  At the first chance they would put into a foreign port, sell the cargo and discharge the crew, without ever making even a token effort to seize an enemy vessel.[62]  Thus while privateering was an essential part of American naval strategy against the British, the pretense of privateering was a major element of resistance to American policy.

            The embargo only lasted until April 1814, when news reached Washington that Napoleon was on the verge of final defeat.  Ignoring his original professed intent of interdicting trade with Canada, Madison tied his embargo to Napoleon’s Continental System.[63]  Congress overwhelmingly repealed the embargo, leaving in place only a prohibition against trading with the enemy.[64]

            Illicit trade commenced too along the border between the United States and Canada.  Elting writes that during the summer of 1813, there was so much trade across the militarily inactive border around Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River that the British were able to take delivery of about 1,000 American cattle and 500 horses, from Vermont alone.[65]  This was indicative of a thriving trade across the border with Canada, much of it proceeding along inland waterways,  Like commerce by sea, this sometimes used “captures” by equally bogus privateers, in which traders seized their own goods, bought by agents in Montreal.  Others would inform the authorities on themselves, thereby earning a bounty equal to a third of the value of the goods.  Then the shipper would use further legal appeals to secure even more relief.[66]

            Just as during Jefferson’s embargo, trade with Canada became a favorite commercial past time throughout the War of 1812, as New Yorkers sent livestock, flour, candles, leather, dairy products, and potash to Canada in exchange for manufactured goods.  There was not even much of an effort to hide this commerce either, as one caravan of smugglers and their goods was alleged to be over a mile long.  With such extensive trade, it should be no surprise that troops at Plattsburgh and Sackett’s Harbor spent much of their time trying to interdict smugglers, sometimes in concert with pro-war civilians against anti-war merchants.[67] 

Americans did not confine themselves either to selling food and other goods with dual military and civilian uses.  While Prevost readied for his 1814 drive on Plattsburgh, he experienced difficulty in acquiring the heavy cables and fittings needed for his flotilla. His officers, preparing to invade the United States, reportedly placed orders for special ship cables with American merchants, who happily obliged, charging the enemy outrageously.  Fortunately, American customs officers intercepted the shipment before it could cross the border.[68]



            When it comes to the political struggles of the War of 1812, much attention invariably lands on the anti-war, anti-embargo resistance of New York and especially New England commercial interests, and the Federalist Party.  The Federalists had their center of power in New England, but were not confined to the northeast.  For example, in 1812 the printing plant of a Federalist, anti-war newspaper in Baltimore was demolished by an angry mob.  The owner, Alexander C. Hanson, was so threatened that he took refuge in the local jail, but was dragged out and severely beaten by the mob.  He and a friend, General Henry Lee, were badly injured, but another man, General J.M. Lingan, died.[69]

            Federalists earned the reputation as being inordinately pro-British, and thus predisposed to favor the enemy over their own country.  Even the old Federalist John Adams had to admit this about certain fellow party-members from Massachusetts.  In March 1812, Adams wrote about his thoughts regarding the former Federalist governor of the state, Caleb Strong, running for his old office.  Adams wrote that Strong and his partisans “love Great Britain and hate France,” and that “To throw the government into the hands of a party devoted to Great Britain at a time when we are in immediate danger of a war with that empire would be downright absurdity.”[70]

            Strong undermined American strategy during his second tenure as governor.  No other episode demonstrates this more than his actions when General Henry Dearborn, the army’s ranking officer, attempted to mobilize the New England militia for service in an invasion of Canada, toward Montreal, in summer 1812.  Besides having a fine reputation going back to the Revolution, the militia of the New England states were uniformly organized, with good weapons and training.  More than in any other region, these units measured up to federal standards.[71]

            When Dearborn attempted to call out the militia, Dearborn and his fellow governors of Rhode Island and Connecticut refused to cooperate.  The forces were intended to garrison coastal forts, freeing the regulars for redeployment to the Canadian border.  Dearborn no doubt antagonized Strong and his colleagues by refusing to take the militia with their full complement of state officers, but he was also concerned that these might undermine federal command, and that there could be the awkward situation of a militia officer outranking a regular.  Regardless, the governors did not want to support, even indirectly, an invasion of Canada that they regarded as unwise and unjust.  Furthermore, they did not want to strip their states of their primary means of defense.  Not surprisingly, this met with anger from Madison, who saw it as evidence that the United States was not really one nation.[72]

            Later, Strong and the other governors were more willing to cooperate, when the British threatened their own coasts.  However, by 1814 even this arrangement broke down.[73]  Aggravating matters still further, at this time Sherbrooke occupied eastern Maine, and the only troops defending the New England coast were state militia, posted at great expense.  Even so, in this hour of danger, it also tended to be over their loud objections,[74] and with no little or no help from the federal government.[75]

            Nonetheless, the most important, and in the long run fatal to the Federalist party, action was the convening of the Hartford Convention in late 1814.  The convention was founded on resentment of their states’ treatment by the federal government, and examined the possibility of nullifying federal laws, and preempting the collection of federal taxes for defense.[76]  Delegates were further worried that while Britain fought Napoleon, the world’s most dangerous military dictatorship, New England, the conscience of the United States in its own mind, was dragged into a conflict against the last forces of order and against tyranny.[77]

            The Hartford Convention was viewed very badly by the Federalists’ opponents in the Democratic-Republican Party, in part because it was conducted in secret, leading to reports of sedition and secession.  However, despite the rumors of treason emanating from Hartford, there appears to have been only one avowed secessionist there, Timothy Bigelow, the former speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.[78]

            Britain made very little effort to exploit either the truth or the rumors of the convention.  Prevost’s reasoning launching his last offensive up the Richelieu and Lake Champlain appears to have had New England separatism in mind, encouraging the region to make a separate peace with Britain, but even that is uncertain.[79]  Ultimately the convention ended, discredited, as the news of the Treaty of Ghent reached American shores.  Writes Henry Adams:


The commissioners from Massachusetts and Connecticut who appeared at Washington with the recommendations of the Hartford Convention, returned home as quietly as possible, pursued by the gibes of the press.  The war was no more popular than it had been before, as the subsequent elections proved; but the danger was passed, and passion instantly subsided.[80]


            Rather than exploiting American divisions, the British had much to worry about in Canada.  American immigration to Canada had been steady since the American Revolution, and not simply with disaffected Loyalists.  In fact, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenberg calculate that about 80,000 Tories left the United States during and after the Revolution, though this amounted to a minority of Americans loyal to George III.  Those who remained in the former colonies were treated better than political and religious dissidents in Europe, giving them less reason to seek refuge in Canada.  Further, many who did leave, returned after the Revolution.  One, Cadwallader Colden, returned to New York to command a regiment in the War of 1812, and Henry Cruger was elected to the New York state senate while still a member of the British Parliament.[81]  Thus American immigration to Canada had to come from additional sources than disaffected Loyalists.

            In Upper Canada, much of the population had its roots in the United States, and had been drawn there by cheaper land and lower taxes.[82]  Many were Quakers, German Mennonites and Dunkers from Pennsylvania, moving to Canada in a smaller-scale version of a similar migration to Indiana.[83]  After the War of 1812, Canada would attract a larger share of immigrants from the British Isles, but these more reliable people tended to congregate in the cities instead of the frontier.[84]  But during the war, the British would have to deal with a Canadian population with less political reliability.

            The Quebecois were not much of a problem, due to their relative distance from the main fronts, and Prevost’s efforts and winning them over.  But the English-speaking population of Upper Canada certainly was.  By and large they were parochial and self-interested, not especially willing to sacrifice for any larger cause, whether it was a state, republic or empire.  According to Alan Taylor in his recent book The Civil War of 1812, “In fact, most of the people just wanted to be left alone to tend their farms, so they hoped that one side or the other would win the war quickly.”[85]

            This apathy manifested itself in resistance to service in the Canadian militia.  In June 1814, one regiment reported that 94 men, over a quarter of its personnel, deserted to the enemy.  Most were American-born, unmarried, and either landless laborers or artisans.  This regiment was afflicted with an overbearing and overzealous colonel, a Loyalist refugee from the United States, who alienated his less passionate men, and then managed to blame much of it on his own second in command.[86]

            The British had problems mobilizing, or even engaging, their own American-born population, but gaining the loyalty of the Indians was easier.  Brock was instrumental in this, forging a close relationship with the Natives concentrating in the west, at Amherstburg.  He had an especially good relationship with the Tecumseh.[87]  A chief of the Shawnee nation, displaced migrants from the American South, Tecumseh was not just an extremely talented chief, but a visionary with a dream of uniting the Indians on the American frontier into their own confederation.[88]

            Indians were important elements of the British war effort in the east as well.  The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were vital to the victory at Queenston Heights especially, where their chief, John Norton, helped lead a critical assault.[89]  The adopted “nephew” of the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, Norton was if anything more worldly; Norton’s father was Cherokee, his mother Scottish, and he received a good education in Dumferline, before going to Canada as a soldier in an Irish regiment. Despite disappointments when he represented Indian interests before the British, he was loyal and valuable. [90]

            By 1814 though, Britain’s Indian allies were the subjects of American diplomatic efforts to neutralize them, especially in Lower Canada.  The evolving nature of the war was toward a more conventional, stand-up, European way of fighting, and away from the irregular warfare that played to the Indians’ strengths.  Then in July 1814, American-based Indians sent emissaries to their Canadian relatives, arguing that the War of 1812 was very much a white man’s war, and that all the Indians could expect in the end was bloodshed and misery.  Much to the disgust of the British, their Native allies dwindled in numbers right away.[91]



            What little Americans remember today of the War of 1812 puts Britain into the role of the aggressor.  The National Anthem commemorates a British attack on Baltimore, after the burning of the public buildings in Washington, and to a lesser extent the Battle of New Orleans has a place in the American consciousness.  There, an army of Wellington’s veterans, commanded by his brother-in-law Edward Pakenham, were defeated in an attempt to seize the port.

            However, these popular images should be measured against a more rigorous analysis of overall British strategy, especially on the borders with New York and New England, where most of the war took place.  With the ascension of Liverpool’s government, Britain entered hostilities only reluctantly, and was open to an early exit in the interest of concentrating on the real war with France.  This sentiment only grew when the Duke of Wellington was consulted; not only was he impressed with the difficulties of campaigning in North America, he saw the desirability of abandoning all territorial demands against the Americans.  Thus one can view Wellington as recommending a draw in North America, in the interests of victory in Europe.

            Further, this undercuts the popular image that the War of 1812 was the Second War of Independence for the United States.  Except for Sherbrooke’s invasion of Maine and Prevost’s half-hearted, narrow thrust towards Plattsburgh in 1814, there were no major attempts to seize and hold territory any distance from the Niagara River or the Great Lakes.  Rather than conquering territory, British forces stayed close to the water, and never posed a significant threat to anything but the periphery of the United States.  There was no immediate threat to the independence of the country.

            If anything, Britain failed to exploit opportunities to defeat the United States politically.  Federalist opposition to the war was a largely domestic phenomenon, confined to American political counsels, and if it skirted the border between dissent and treason, the British do not appear to have done much to influence it either way.  Instead, Britain’s main interaction was commercial, facilitating trade deemed illegal by the federal government but mutually profitable to Britain, Canada and New England.  It was less destructive to American interests and beneficial to the interests of some Americans, while undermining federal authority.  The War of 1812 was a rare conflict in that British economic warfare was actually constructive to, and demanded by, significant elements within the enemy commercial establishment.

            At the same time, Britain was not so strong on the frontiers with New York and New England that it could afford to take the offensive automatically.  While Brock earns credit as a superior leader, Prevost had a clear sense of Canadian vulnerabilities, and if his defensive strategy did not do much to win the war, at least he was able to avoid defeat.  Further, he had a superior political sense, and if one considers his political acumen along with his military abilities, he deserves greater appreciation.   After all, he was able to maintain the loyalty of the French-speaking population, ease political divisions between religious communities, and in the end maintain control of a Canada in which residents of American origin presented a distinct danger to British rule.

            Ultimately, British strategy was, on its own terms, a success.  Britain retained control of Canada through a basically defensive stance, with limited incursions into New York and New England.  While one could be tempted to denigrate it as a strategy calculated less to win than one not to lose, it is precisely because of this that British strategy can be seen as successful.  From the very beginning it was, necessarily, defensive―even Brock’s version can be seen as one of active defense rather than commitment to sustained offensive.  Charged with defending Canada, Prevost and his subordinates did just that.





Adams, Henry.  History of the United States of America during the Administrations of

James Madison.  New York: The Library of America, 1986.


Adler, Mortimer and Van Doren, Charles (ed.).  The Annals of America, Volume 4: 1797-

1820.  Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968.


Borneman, Walter R.  1812: The War That Forged a Nation.  New York: Harper

Perennial, 2004.


Brebner, J. Bartlett.  Canada: A Modern History.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan

Press, 1960.


Coles, Harry L.  The War of 1812.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.


Crawford, Michael J.  "The United States' War with Tripoli (1801-05) and the War on

Terrorism (2001-), " History and Heritage Command.  accessed 26 February 2012.


Elting, John R.  Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812. New York:

Da Capo Press, 1995.


Harvey, Robert.  The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France:

1789-1815.  New York: Basic Books, 2006.


Heidler, David S. and Heidler, Jeanne T (ed.).  Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.  Santa

Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997.


Hickey, Donald R.  The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.  Urbana: University of

Illinois Press, 1989.


LaCroix, Alison L.  “A Singular and Awkward War: The Transatlantic Context of the

Hartford Convention,” American Nineteenth Century History 6, Number 1 (March 2005).  EBSCOhost (accessed 17 March 2012): 3-32.


Morrison, Samuel Eliot.  The Oxford History of the American People.  New York:

Oxford University Press, 1965.


Morrison, Samuel Eliot; Commager, Henry Steele and Leuchtenberg, William E.  The

Growth of the American Republic, Volume I.  London: Oxford University Press, 1969.


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Online.”  accessed

11 March 2012.


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accessed 6 March 2012.


“Prevost, Sir George.”  Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online,  accessed 7 March 2012.


"Quasi-War With France," United States Department of State.  accessed 26 February 2012.


Roosevelt, Theodore.  The Naval War of 1812.  New York: The Modern Library, 1999.


“Spencer Percival.”  The Victorian Web.   accessed 6 March 2012.


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Affairs142, Issue 3 (Winter 1979/1980).  EBSCOhost (accessed 8 March 2012): 169-187.


_____.  “Smuggling in the War of 1812,” History Today 29, 8 (August 1979).  EBSCO

host (accessed 8 March 2012): 532-537.


Taylor, Alan.  The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels &

Indian Allies.  New York: Knopf, 2011.


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Journal IX, nr. 4 (December 1976).  JSTORhost (accessed 26 February 2012): 859-876


Werbaneth, James P.  “Counterproductive Distractions: Britain’s American Diversion in the Pursuit of Victory Over Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.”  Paper presented to the Conference of Army Historians (Arlington VA), 27 July 2011.


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[1] James P. Werbaneth, “Counterproductive Distractions: Britain’s American Diversion in the Pursuit of Victory Over Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.”  Paper presented to the Conference of Army Historians (Arlington VA), 27 July 2011.


[2] S. J. Stearns, “Liverpool, Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of,” in David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 302.


[3] Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 379.


[4] Ibid., 383.

[5] Ibid., 379.


[6] J. Bartlett Brebner, Canada: A Modern History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 225-226.


[7] Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 57.


[8] Ibid., 57.

[9] Morrison, 379.

[10] Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 83.


[11] "Quasi-War With France,"  United States Department of State. (accessed 26 February 2012).


[12] Michael J. Crawford.  "The United States' War with Tripoli (1801-05) and the War on Terrorism

(2001-),"  Naval History and Heritage Command.  (accessed 26 February 2012).


[13] G.E. Watson, "The United States and the Peninsular War, 1808-1812," The Historical Journal 19, nr. 4 (December 1976), JSTORhost (accessed 26 February 2012), 864-866.


[14] Samuel Eliot Morrison, Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenberg, The Growth of the American Republic, Volume I (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 236.


[15] Ibid., 237.


[16] Robert Harvey, The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France: 1789-1815 (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 515-516.

[17] Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 6.


[18] Morrison, Commager and Leuchtenburg, 352-353.


[19] Ibid., 353.


[20] Harvey Strum, “New York Federalists and Opposition to the War of 1812,” World Affairs 142, Issue 3 (Winter 1979/1980),  EBSCOhost  (accessed 8 March 2012), 169.


[21] Steve Parrisien, “George IV: The National Joke?,” BBC,  accessed 6 March 2012.


[22] Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison (New York: The Library of America, 1986), 298.


[23] Ibid., 298.


[24] “Spencer Perceval,” The Victorian Web, accessed 6 March 2012.


[25] Ibid.


[26] Adams, 298-299.


[27] “Spencer Perceval.”


[28] John R. Elting, Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995),10.


[29] Stearns, 302.

[30] Ibid., 302.


[31] Ibid., 302.


[32] “Prevost, Sir George,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online,  accessed 7 March 2012.


[33] Wesley B. Turner, “Prevost, George,” in Heidler and Heidler, 428.


[34] “Prevost, Sir George.”


[35] Turner, 428.


[36] Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 41.

[37] Ibid., 41-42.


[38] Ibid., 42.


[39] Ibid., 42.


[40] Adams, 515.


[41] Ibid., 515.


[42] Elting, 29-30.


[43] Ibid., 34.


[44] Ibid., 45.


[45] Roosevelt, 130.


[46] Elting, 255.


[47] Ibid., 253-261.


[48] Adams, 987-989.


[49] Elting, 153-155.

[50] Ibid., 269-271.


[51] Borneman, 250.


[52] S.J. Stearns, “Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of,” in Heidler and Heidler, 551.


[53] Stearns, “Liverpool,” 302-303.


[54] Harvey Strum, “Smuggling in the War of 1812,” History Today EBSCO host  Volume 29, 8 (August 1979), 532.  Accessed 8 March 2012.


[55] Ibid., 533.

[56] Ibid., 533-534.


[57] Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 230-231.


[58] Ibid., 168.


[59] Ibid., 168-169.


[60] Ibid., 169.


[61] Adams, 873-874.


[62] Hickey, 171-173.


[63] Adams, 876-878.


[64] Hickey, 173-175.


[65] Elting, 252.


[66] Hickey, 169.


[67] Strum, “Smuggling in the War of 1812,” 536.


[68] Elting, 254.

[69] Morrison, 383.


[70] John Adams to Benjamin Waterhouse, 11 March 1812, in Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (ed.), The Annals of America, Volume 4: 1797-1820 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968), 312.

[71] Hickey, 259.


[72] Ibid., 259-261.


[73] Ibid., 260-261.


[74] Borneman, 250.

[75] Hickey, 267-268.


[76] Borneman, 254-255.


[77] Alison L. LaCroix, “A Singular and Awkward War: The Transatlantic Context of the Hartford Convention,” American Nineteenth Century History 6, Number 1 (17 March 2005).   EBSCOhost.  accessed 8 March 2012, 6.


[78] Borneman, 254.


[79] Elting, 255-256.

[80] Adams, 1237.


[81] Morrison, Commager and Leuchtenberg, 234.

[82] Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies (New York: Knopf, 2011), 300.


[83] Brebner, 225.


[84] Ibid., 226.


[85] Taylor, 300.


[86] Ibid., 299.


[87] Coles, 52.


[88] Borneman, 31-32.


[89] Elting, 47.


[90] “Norton, John (Snipe, Teyoninhokarawen),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online,”  accessed 11 March 2012.

[91] Elting, 312-313.





Jim Werbaneth was born in Pittsburgh, and attended Shady Side Academy there, graduating in 1979.  He pursued both his BA and MA in political science at Duquesne University, in 1985 writing a thesis titled The Ideological Foundations of the Salvadoran Revolution, analyzing the FMLN. He went on to several careers, most notably in banking and insurance.  From 2008-2010, he taught political science at Community College of Allegheny County. Since 2008 he has also taught political science, American history and military history at La Roche College, and starting in 2009, American government in an online environment for the American Public University System [APUS].  He is also an experienced board wargame designer and developer, and publisher of the magazine Line of Departure.   Through this, Werbaneth is a multiple recipient of the Charles S. Roberts Award, for both his design work, and for publishing Line of Departure.

Jim's email is


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