I’m feeling quite guilty about this.
There have been a number of searches on the War of 1812 showing up on my information page. But because I haven’t written about it here, I suspect there may be some rather disappointed people who were looking for specifics about that British-American conflict which erupted into full-scale war in June 1812.
And I should have written about it sooner, because, of course, it did very much impact upon the world I write about in May 1812.
So, shall I tell you some of what I know about it?
I do warn you though–much of this is what we’d call today a trade war and/or economic sanctions and is like to be as boring as wallpaper paste.
Equally, I beg that you will understand that from a British point of view at the time, it was never more than a sideshow to the main arena of the war against Napoleon in Europe. And now it is always taught within this context.
Go back a few years to that happy time known as 1806, November to be precise, when a short, stroppy Corsican adventurer by the name of Napoleon, (did I mention he was a tyrant?) issued a Decree. He was in Berlin at the time, so it’s known as the Berlin Decree and is one of two…the second being known as the Milan Decree of 1807, for the obvious reason.
And it was in these two decrees that he laid down the law regarding imports into Europe, also known as the Continental System or Continental Blockade.
And this is what he’d decided: that Britain had violated international law and therefore he declared Britain off limits to everyone and no one was to trade with them. At all.
Also, all ports (worldwide) were to be closed to British ships; all British goods were to be excluded from the Continent; any ship which had called at a British port or paid duty to the Brits or been searched at sea by the Royal Navy was declared by him to be lawful prize; and all commerce was to be seized, even ‘letters written in English.’
Did you get that?
What he’s saying is that because he says so, Britain is to be treated as a pariah, both at home and abroad. What he’s saying is no British imports of any kind can be brought into any European country which is ruled by France, is an ally of France, or is a French satellite-state.
And given that the French had walloped the combined armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria at a place called Austerlitz in December 1805; and that the French had already taken over most of Italy, the German states and the Low Countries, Napoleon was, ostensibly, in a position to call the tune in 1806-7.
He’s also saying that any neutral country, such as the United States, which derived a great deal of its wealth from the shipping businesses operating out of the New England ports, could not, say, do a trip that included a stop first in Britain and then at a Continental port. (Also, as Britain was the Americans’ largest market, especially for things like timber, these decrees were particularly onerous from their point of view.)
And finally, he’s licensing French piracy by declaring any British ship or ship that had anything to do with the British or the Royal Navy, lawful prize. And yes, French piracy was already a huge problem at the time.
There was only one small problem with his plan.
The French had no navy–this having been wiped out pretty effectively by the Royal Navy at an encounter called Trafalgar in October 1805.
So he trusted that the rest of the world was listening, (he was, after all, Napoleon) and that commercial exclusion would work as well as open warfare–and by depriving the British of the income their vast export businesses created, they could hit the British where it hurt–in their purses.
But since the British (weirdly) didn’t recognise Napoleon as their sovereign, they didn’t feel any need to obey his orders.
And then they responded. The Council had a meeting and came up with a list–which came to be known as the Orders in Council.
These were summed up pretty simply: blockade all French ports; require all ships wishing to call at a Continental port to possess a British-issued license; and search all ships for deserters from the Royal Navy.
(Oh, and unlike the French, they did possess a rather powerful navy which could enforce these orders…)
And before anybody gets all riled up about that last requirement, can I just say, in 1807, it wasn’t so easy to tell the difference between an American and a Brit. The American accent as we know it today hadn’t developed yet. Indeed, many Americans at that time were only one generation removed from their forefather’s mother country. Many would have served on merchant ships alongside British sailors–so just talking to a chap wasn’t always a sure method of determining anything.
Also, please, please, always remember, that in 1807, all of Europe had been embroiled in a bloody war since 1792. Few of us can imagine what fifteen years of continuous warfare does to the psyche, let alone to the population levels. What may seem a rational response or an irrational over-reaction in peacetime, may look quite different when viewed through the lens of interminable war.
So, back to my wallpaper paste.
President Jefferson responded to the whole trade war business with something called the Embargo Act of 1807 in which he declared that no American ships were to set sail for foreign waters. Full stop.
However, this caused, as you might imagine, a little bit of a problem for the prosperous American ship owners and exporters. Their goods piled up in warehouses, their ships were confined to port, and lots of folk went bankrupt. Ooops.
So, under pressure from their own merchants, Congress repealed this in 1809 and issued instead the Non-Intercourse Act. (No, I did not make that name up.) This allowed American ships to trade with everybody except the British and the French.
Are we clear so far? No?
Well, stick around. The paste is about to turn to mud.
By this time, the Continent was feeling the bite of Napoleon’s exclusion of British produced goods and also their shipping might. To exclude the British suppliers meant no sugar (from the Caribbean), no tea or coffee (from India), no chocolate, no cotton (India again), little wool…It was a lot like rationing during WWII, only not that nice. Great for dieters, I suppose, but not much good for anyone else.
So Napoleon got huffy. (He was quite good at that…he had a mouth like a sewer too.) And he retaliated in March 1810, forbidding all ships sailing under the American flag and carrying merchandise from entering any French port.
So, in May 1810, Congress repealed the trading restrictions against both Britain and France, but said that if either one of them would repeal their anti-commercial decrees, they’d stop trading with the other.
But, Napoleon didn’t like that either so he decided it was time to play one of his double-games. (Shocking, isn’t it?)
He had one of his ministers write a very sweet little letter to the Americans saying that he would revoke those nasty decrees of Berlin and Milan on 1 November 1810–as far as the American merchants were concerned–if Britain would also revoke the Orders in Council at the same time.
But (here comes the catch) if Britain did not revoke the Orders in Council by 1 November, then the US must resume the Non-Intercourse Act (I call it the Chastity Act, myself) and stop trading with Britain altogether.
At this point, you may say, ‘Hang on a tick there, old thing. Napoleon didn’t have the right to dictate to the US who they could or could not trade with.’ And you’d be right to say that.
But Napoleon in 1810 was at the top of his game. There was nothing he could not do–or thought he could not do. He’d just kicked the Prussian and Austrian armies into smithereens at a series of battles so bloody it would make your eyes water.
He’d just married an Austrian princess, Maria Theresa, and a baby was on the way, thus ensuring a legitimate heir to the throne he’d taken for himself. All of Europe was his or his ally by virtue of his having put one of his brothers on its throne. Only in Spain and Portugal were things a bit iffy–and he didn’t count them.
So back to the fun and games…
The British heard nothing about his offer for some time and when they did hear of it, doubted that he’d written it. They felt he lacked sincerity. They felt he wasn’t very good at honouring his agreements either. So they refused to revoke the Orders in Council.
The Americans assumed he meant it, even though French privateers continued to prey upon American ships. And the announcement that Napoleon was to revoke the Continental Blockade as far as the US was concerned had been met with dancing in the streets, so badly had these trade wars damaged the American economy.
So they got hotter and hotter under the collar at the British intractability. Then too, Canada looked awfully attractive up there to the north and a little war would justify a land grab, don’t you see?
Eventually, the British sensed that the US were heading towards a war they didn’t want. So they did revoke the Orders in Council–they announced that they planned to do so on 21 April 1812.
But in this age of sail, ships carrying information could take weeks to get their news across the Atlantic.
Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated on 11 May 1812. The Government fell on 21 May. And so you might say they had a domestic crisis or three on their plate now too.
Still. One of the first acts the new Government, headed by a new Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, did was revoke the Orders in Council–on 16 June. But this news only reached Washington well after Congress had declared war on 18 June.
And in truth, the two countries had been unched into war by the only one who would benefit from it–Napoleon.
Though he, himself, was on his way to his disastrous invasion of Russia–along with some 550,000 troops–of whom only some 35,000 would return. He and they crossed the Nieman into Russian territory on 28 June.
The war led to the senseless burning of Washington and the destruction of much of New Orleans.
And I realise that this may be heresy from an American point of view, what with this war being seen as proof of America’s Manifest Destiny. But the fact remains that historically one of the most effective ways to forge a single national identity from a diverse population is a great bout of ‘us versus them’ thinking. And the war did provide that for the young nation at least.
The British didn’t want war with the Americans. They could ill afford it–either financially or in terms of manpower or naval power. They were heavily committed on the Peninsula where their army was inflicting progressive damage on the French. They were the sole financial support of the Portuguese and Spanish war efforts, as well as providing huge subsidies to their future allies, Prussia, Austria and Sweden. And they certainly didn’t fancy fighting a war on two fronts, either at sea, or by sending troops to defend their Canadian territories. To them it was little more than an expensive distraction which petered to a close by 1814.
And it is because of all these commitments, plus the fact that by 1812, Europe had been at war for twenty long years, (with continent-wide losses the equivalent of half of the British population of 1800) that the War of 1812 must be seen as no more than a sideshow to the main event in Europe, the wars of Napoleon.
And it was Napoleon who was the both the main instigator of the trade wars which crippled American shipping and exporting, as well as the main beneficiary of Britain’s engagement in a separate theatre of war.
Okay, lecture over. Those of you in the back row can wake up now.
Oh. And a final word. The 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky? It wasn’t written in celebration of this war or about Americans opening any cans of whoop-arse over the Brits in 1812. It was written to commemorate the repulsing of the Napoleon’s Grande Armee and their unsuccessful attempt to take over Mother Russia in 1812.