Fact-file: The Seaborne Causes of the War of 1812

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The reasons Britain and the United States went to war in 1812 are diverse. Indeed, different factions within each country had different driving motivations.

Some, particularly the faction of the US government known as ‘the Warhawks’ – led by President Madison – sought the annexation of parts or all of the British provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, the total seizure of the Great Lakes and the end of British influence over the Native American tribes in the Northwest Territory.

Constitution escapes the British squadron.
Constitution escapes the British squadron.

The British in turn hoped to create a Native American ‘buffer state’ between the potentially fragile frontier of Canada and the burgeoning United States, and had provided direct military support for Native American tribes at war with the US in the decades leading up to 1812.

Actions at sea also heavily influenced the outbreak of the war. In 1807, locked as it was in a titanic struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte, Britain impeded the USA’s neutral trade with France and began impressing American sailors – seizing them while at sea and forcing them into service on British ships under the pretence that they were Royal Navy deserters.

Individual incidents slowly stoked animosity between the two countries. In 1804, HMS Leander seized numerous ships off Sandy Hook, and in one accident a cannon shot decapitated the helmsman of a small American sloop. In 1807, HMS Leopard attacked and seized the USS Chesapeake under the pretext of capturing deserters; four Americans were killed during the brief engagement.

Four years later, and just over a year before the beginning of formal hostilities, the USS President attacked the British sloop Little Belt, mistakenly believing her to be HMS Guerriere, which had seized an American citizen, John Diggio, off the USS Spitfire 16 days previously.

The President opened fire, killing 11 British sailors, before realising her mistake. The event placed the President at the top of the list of the Royal Navy’s priority targets once the war formally began.

This article was published in the July 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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