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The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and Britain that began in 1812 and lasted until early 1815. A declaration of war was requested by President James Madison to protect American ships on the high seas and to stop the British from capturing U.S. sailors. U.S. ships were being stopped and searched by both Great Britain and France, which were both fighting each other in Europe. President Madison also wanted to prevent Britain from creating alliances with Native Americans on the American frontier. Americans in the West and South, who hoped to increase the size of the United States by seizing control of both Canada and Florida, influenced his decision. Critics called the War of 1812 "Mr. Madison's War," but others saw it as a "second war of independence," an opportunity for Americans to protect their freedom and honor in the face of European disrespect. Neither Britain nor the United States was particularly well prepared to fight this war, and the conflict eventually ended in a stalemate.
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France and Britain, Europe's two most powerful nations, had battles almost constantly since 1793, and their warfare directly affected American trade. Fighting began during the French Revolution when England united with other European nations in an unsuccessful attempt to restore the French monarchy, and then continued as Britain led the efforts to stop French expansion under Napoleon I. American presidents from Washington to Madison tried to keep the United States impartial during these conflicts, but both France and Britain deliberately ignored the rights of neutral countries.
For the Americans, the greatest annoyance was Britain's practice of impressments, or the capture of American seamen for service in the British navy. The British government claimed that it only detained subjects of the Crown who sailed under the American flag to escape wartime service in their own navy. In fact, the British seized not only their own deserters, but also frightened a significant number of United States citizens-estimates suggest 6000 or more.
Public outrage over the issue of impressments grew increasingly vocal after a clash between the American naval frigate Chesapeake and a British vessel, the Leopard. In June 1807 the Leopard approached the Chesapeake only a few miles off the American coastline and demanded to look for British deserters on the ship. James Barron, the commander of the Chesapeake, refused and the Leopard opened fire. A number of American sailors were killed or wounded during the assault, and the Chesapeake surrendered. The British then sent a crew aboard and dragged four crewmen from the vessel. After the incident, Jefferson ordered British warships to leave American waters and demanded an end to the way of impressments. The British did make some apologies and compensation for the Chesapeake-Leopard incident, but continued to claim the right to seize American ships and check them for deserters.
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The United States government had hardly any military resources with which to fight a major war. The British ranked as the world's greatest maritime power, but the U.S. Navy did not possess a single ship of the line, as battleships of the day were called. In fact, the Americans had only eight frigates and eight smaller seaworthy warships. In addition, the government had made no naval measures along the most strategically significant of the waterways bordering Canada-Lakes Champlain, Ontario, and Erie.
As hostilities loomed, Congress authorized a regular army of 35,000 men, but when the United States officially declared war in June 1812, the actual land force was less than 10,000 and nearly half of these soldiers were inexperienced recruits. The existing troops were also widely spread out in small garrisons. The government planned to enhance this regular force with 50,000 volunteers and 100,000 militiamen, the latter to be provided by the states. However, resistance to the war was so strong in New England that the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to call up their militia in response to President Madison's request for troops.
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In June 1812 British naval forces were significantly superior to the forces of the U.S. Navy, but the British were focused on an array of missions elsewhere, most notably the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. As a result, American warships enjoyed relative freedom of action during the rest of that year. On Lakes Erie and Ontario the British quickly equipped available merchant vessels with guns and gained primary command of the waters. The British land force in Canada totaled about 7000 men, with about 1500 of these soldiers stationed in Upper Canada in the region of the Great Lakes. The remaining British forces patrolled the Maritime Provinces and the St. Lawrence Valley.
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The effects of America's privateering were magnified because the British had wearied after their mighty 22-year scuffle with France. They hoped for peace. The American people had also grown tired of war. In New England popular responses against the war grew and turned into political activity, especially after the British captured Castine, on the coast of Maine, in late August and marched unopposed into Bangor. This action caused much fear, but the exhausted state of U.S. finances and the economic decay caused by the British blockade offered little hope that hostilities could end successfully for America.
General Brown at the Niagara frontier and Captain Macdonough at Lake Champlain had brought relief from immediate danger of invasion, but British reinforcements continued to arrive in Canada. More than 20,000 British troops under Sir George Murray stood prepared for a spring campaign in 1815. Peace seemed the only hope of avoiding conflict within the United States, as well as defeat at the hands of the British.
England and America had tried to start peace negotiations as early as 1813, but without much success. In August 1814, when British government officials expected significant results from their powerful concentration of forces in Canada, they selected commissioners to meet with the American negotiators at Ghent.
In the beginning, the main characteristic of the British proposals was the creation of a neutral territory for Native Americans as a buffer between British and American property in the area around the Great Lakes. The British hoped to appoint the Ohio River as the southern boundary of this territory. The British also wanted access to navigation on the Mississippi River and the permanent possession of Sackets Harbor and Fort Niagara. They demanded that the United States give up defenses and naval forces on the Great Lakes as well as fishing rights along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Americans would not concur to any of these points. They demanded that the British end impressment, pay compensation for the ships they had seized, and follow international regulations on the use of blockades. As negotiations proceeded, the British government gradually reduced its demands, ultimately eliminating its proposals concerning neutral territory and armaments on the lakes. The Americans ultimately dropped the subjects of impressment and blockades.
While the British Cabinet considered the remaining issues, news reached Europe of the Battle of Lake Champlain and of the British defeats at Baltimore and at Fort Erie. The feelings of the American commissioners stiffened. Negotiations lagged once more, and ultimately the British agreed to leave all unsettled points for future negotiations. Both countries signed the peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Ghent, on December 24, 1814. The settlement simply ended hostilities and restored pre-war conditions, but under the circumstances American negotiators believed they had triumphed.
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Almost overnight the War of 1812 became a glorious success. On February 20th President Madison sent a letter to Congress transmitting the treaty of peace. He congratulated the nation on the conclusion of a war "waged with the success which is the natural result of the wisdom of the legislative councils, of the patriotism of the people, of the public spirit of the militia, and of the valor of the military and naval forces of the country."
More reasonably, the fledgling nation had the remarkable good fortune to escape the consequences of a war that it had badly mismanaged from the beginning. The Battle of New Orleans, fought after the two sides had already signed the peace treaty, ironically became the war's most famous incident. The navy enjoyed well-deserved popularity for many years after the conflict, but the significant results of the Battle of Lake Champlain did not receive full recognition for another generation.
The main benefit for the United States was a renewed self-confidence and faith in the ability of its military to defend the nation's freedom and honor. Even though neither side came away from the war with a clear-cut victory, the American people saw the War of 1812 as proof of the success of the democratic experiment. The war ushered in a period of American history that has often been called "the era of good feeling," a time when, at least on the surface, most Americans felt united behind a common purpose. The War of 1812 convinced the country that it could now fend off any foreign threats and that its focus should be on growth and development at home.
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