War was declared June 18, 1812. It was not until hostilities had begun that Madison discovered how woefully inadequate American preparations for war were. The rash hopes of the "war hawks," who expected to take Canada at a blow, were soon dashed. The American force under Gen. William Hull, far from gaining glory, disgracefully surrendered (Aug., 1812) at Detroit to a smaller Canadian force under Isaac Brock. On the Niagara River, an American expedition was repulsed after a successful attack on Queenston Heights, because the militia under Stephen Van Rensselaer would not cross the New York state boundary.
On the sea, however, the tiny American navy initially gave a good account of itself. The victory of the Constitution, under Isaac Hull, over the Guerrière and the capture of the Macedonian by the United States (Stephen Decatur commanding) were two outstanding achievements of 1812. The smaller vessels also did well, and American privateers carried the war to the very shores of England. In 1813 the British reasserted their supremacy on the sea; the Chesapeake, under Capt. James Lawrence ("Don't give up the ship!"), accepted a challenge from the Shannon and met with speedy defeat. Most of the American ships were either captured or bottled up in harbor for the duration of the war.
It was on inland waters, however, that the American navy achieved its most notable triumphs—victories that had an important bearing on the course of the war. In Jan., 1813, at the Raisin River, S of Detroit, American troops suffered another defeat. But with the victory of Capt. Oliver Perry on Lake Erie in Sept., 1813, American forces, under Gen. William Henry Harrison, were able to advance against the British, who burned Detroit and retreated into Canada. Harrison pursued and defeated them in a battle at the Thames River (see Thames, battle of the), in which Tecumseh, the Native American chief, was killed. Yet the feeble efforts of James Wilkinson along the St. Lawrence River did nothing to improve the situation on the New York border.
The first months of 1814 held gloomy prospects for the Americans. The finances of the government had been somewhat restored in 1813, but there was no guarantee of future supplies. New England, never sympathetic with the war, now became openly hostile, and the question of secession was taken up by the Hartford Convention. Moreover, with Napoleon checked in Europe, Britain could devote more time and effort to the war in America.
In July, 1814, the American forces along the Niagara River, now under Gen. Jacob Brown, maintained their own in engagements at Chippawa and Lundy's Lane. Shortly afterward, Sir George Prevost led a large army into New York down the west side of Lake Champlain and seriously threatened the Hudson valley. But when his accompanying fleet was defeated near Plattsburgh (Sept., 1814) by Capt. Thomas Macdonough, he was forced to retreat to Canada. In August, a British expedition to Chesapeake Bay won an easy victory at Bladensburg and took Washington, burning the Capitol and the White House. The victorious British, however, were halted at Fort McHenry before Baltimore.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.