Burning of the White House, 1814.
The new year of 1814 dawned with a fresh possibility for an end to the war. After refusing to allow Russia to mediate matters, the British offered to begin direct negotiations late in 1813, and in January, Madison nominated Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell to form a five-man commission with Adams, Bayard, and Gallatin at Gothenburg, Sweden; they arrived there in April.
Little action was taken in Washington during the winter to plan new campaigns. Recruitment continued in new and old regiments, and there were some changes made in their organization. Armstrong ordered Wilkinson to break up his camp at French Mills, sending part of it to Sackets Harbor under now-Major General Jacob Brown of the U. S. Army and the rest to Plattsburgh. From there, Wilkinson made a halfhearted attempt to invade LC in March, but this came to grief in a battle at Lacolle, LC, on 30 March. By that time, Armstrong had already recalled the erratic general to face an inquiry into his St. Lawrence River campaign; Major General George Izard was given command of the Right Division of the northern army at Plattsburgh, while Brown commanded the Left Division. Secretary Jones gave Chauncey permission to construct four new ships at Sackets Harbor and allowed Macdonough to build a warship and gunboats at Vergennes, Vermont. Jones also divided Chauncey’s command by putting Captain Arthur Sinclair in charge of Perry’s former squadron at Erie.
The British were building two frigates and a 100-gun ship at Kingston and debating plans for regaining control of the upper lakes. Drummond and Yeo proposed an ambitious attack on Sackets, but Prevost vetoed this, making it known that he was expecting an armistice to be called shortly.
Nothing of the kind was to happen because, on 6 April, Napoleon abdicated his authority, bringing an end (temporarily) to the great European struggle. The British government now resolved to send some of its best regiments and officers to America to settle the matter with force; these numbers were added to reinforcements already on their way, eventually raising British military strength to nearly 50,000 on all fronts.
Meanwhile, Drummond and Yeo modified their plans and launched, on 5-6 May, an amphibious attack on Oswego, Chauncey’s key transshipment point for heavy materiel sent from New York City. At the cost of heavy casualties, the assault netted some guns, ammunition, rigging, and stores, and Yeo followed it up by blockading the Lake Ontario shore between Oswego and Sackets. Chauncey’s building had started late and an early thaw left his supply trains bogged down in mud across New York, so the assault and blockade worsened his dilemma. However, on 30 May, a small number of naval, military, and native personnel guarding a supply convoy of bateaux headed from Oswego lured nearly 200 seamen and marines from Yeo’s squadron into an ambush, and captured or killed them all. Yeo soon lifted his blockade and returned to Kingston with his larger ships after deploying four of his small vessels to supply Drummond’s army on the Niagara Peninsula.
The Americans had started a campaign on the peninsula almost by accident. Madison’s cabinet did not set its campaign goals until the first week of June, and by that time Armstrong had sent Brown conflicting orders until the general ended up at Buffalo preparing for an invasion of UC. This scheme was pared down when the cabinet committed Sinclair’s squadron and a military contingent for an expedition on the upper lakes instead of to support Brown. “To give immediate occupation to your troops,” Armstrong suggested to Brown, instead, why not capture Fort Erie?
Brown’s army, numbering about 5,000 men in the early phase, captured Fort Erie on 3 July and then beat the British army under Major General Phineas Riall at Chippawa on 5 July; Brigadier General Winfield Scott’s brigade played a key role in this unprecedented American victory. Brown then advanced to the vicinity of Fort George, where, he had been led to believe, Chauncey would arrive with siege weapons and support. Chauncey’s squadron did not sail until late in the month, and Brown ended up withdrawing to Chippawa and then engaging Drummond in the bloody battle of Lundy’s Lane on 25 July.
The Americans withdrew to Fort Erie, which they enlarged and improved, and Drummond soon followed to lay a siege. This period saw the most intense fighting of the war on the Niagara Peninsula with the failed assault on the fort on 15 August followed by weeks of skirmishing and sniping and culminating in the face-to-face combat in a rainstorm during Brown’s sortie on 17 September. Drummond was lifting his siege at this point and fell back to Chippawa, where Izard soon arrived, having been sent with his division from Plattsburgh by Armstrong. Apart from a skirmish at Cook’s Mills, Izard accomplished no more than Brown could, and when he retreated to Buffalo after blowing up Fort Erie on 5 November, the last shots had been fired in anger on the shores of the Niagara.
Had Madison’s cabinet kept its first intentions, Sinclair would have transported Brown’s army to the Grand River, where the army would have gone overland to attack the British at Burlington Heights. But Michilimackinac continued to distract Madison and his advisers even though their victory at Moraviantown had broken the back of Tecumseh’s native resistance so that only a few of the “Western Indians” remained with the British, while many of their people had gone home and would sign a treaty with Harrison in July.
Probably more interested in securing the fur trade than native alliances, the administration sent Sinclair with 750 regulars and militia volunteers to recapture the fur fort and destroy an RN dockyard rumored to be under development in Georgian Bay. After numerous delays, the force entered Lake Huron on 14 July, burned the abandoned British posts at St. Joseph Island and at St. Mary, destroyed one merchantman and captured another, and arrived off Michilimackinac on 26 July. The attack was made on 4 August and ended in failure. Sinclair sent some of his vessels back to Lake Erie with casualties and proceeded into Georgian Bay, but there was no dockyard to be found. He had to content himself with destroying another merchantman before heading for home, after leaving two schooners to intercept the British supply route to Michilimackinac. Soon after his return to Erie, Sinclair was dismayed to hear that a small band of RN seamen, infantry, natives, and traders had captured both his schooners, giving the British a stronger upper hand on Lake Huron and beyond.
While Sinclair pursued his mission, the American army on the Detroit River made no effort to establish an American presence throughout southwestern UC other then deploying several raiding parties into the Thames River valley. These resulted in minor actions with British militia and regulars, such as the skirmish at McCrea’s Farm (15 December 1813) and the violent clash at the Longwoods (4 March 1814). Brigadier General Duncan McArthur began a raid near the end of October with 1,000 men in support of Brown’s army on the Niagara Peninsula, but he got no further than the rain-swollen Grand River, burned some barns and homes, and routed the local militia at Malcolm’s Mills (6 November 1814) before returning to Detroit. The British did not try to reclaim this territory, choosing instead to patrol the area and keep a reserve at Burlington.
For the first time since the Fort Dearborn massacre in August 1812, action occurred west of the lakes. At St. Louis, Governor William Clark of Missouri Territory (Meriwether Lewis’s partner in exploration) feared a British invasion down the Mississippi from their fur-trade post at Prairie du Chien in modern-day Wisconsin. In a preemptive strike, Clark captured the village on 2 June 1814 with a company each of militia and regulars. He left a detachment behind to build Fort Shelby and returned to St. Louis. News of the occupation reached Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall at Michilimackinac, and he quickly sent a force of regulars, fur traders, and natives to retake the place, which they accomplished after a brief siege (17-20 July). The next day, a relief force from St. Louis was attacked by Fox, Kickapoo, and Sac warriors at the Rock Island rapids 100 miles south of Prairie du Chien. This prompted Clark to send a second relief force, but it came to grief at the same place on 5 September. The village and the renamed Fort McKay remained in British hands.
The eastern flank of the northern border saw its major action in 1814. Having launched and fitted out his new warship by early May, Commander Pring attempted to interrupt Macdonough’s shipbuilding at Vergennes, Vermont, but was repelled in the skirmish at Otter Creek (14 May). The Americans sailed two weeks later with a stronger squadron, forcing Pring to withdraw to Isle-aux-Noix. There was skirmishing along the border through the spring and summer, but General Izard did not use his division to invade Canada. Instead, Armstrong sent him in August to join Brown, leaving Brigadier General Alexander Macomb in charge of about 3,500 regulars (many of whom were ill) at Plattsburgh.
The regiments from Europe began arriving at Quebec early in the summer, and with them came orders for Prevost to make an incursion into the United States in coordination with other operations in Maine and Chesapeake Bay. To this end, he formed an 8,100-man army in three infantry brigades, plus dragoons, artillery, and natives. Prevost’s intention was to capture Plattsburgh and, perhaps, advance farther south, but his scheme rested on the RN squadron at Isle-aux-Noix defeating Macdonough. This was impractical since the vessels were not fitted out fully, especially the newly launched frigate Confiance, and were manned mainly with soldiers. Prevost arrived at Plattsburgh on 6 September and impatiently called for the navy to join him. Under Captain George Downie, the squadron sailed before it was properly prepared and suffered an ignominious defeat at Macdonough’s hands on 11 September. Prevost had just started his land attack (later than planned) when he heard of Downie’s defeat and promptly called off the attack. The next day, the army returned to LC, where Prevost was roundly criticized and eventually summoned home to face charges brought against him by Commodore Yeo, who claimed he had goaded Downie into action. The American victory was complete, and Macdonough and Macomb became heroes.
Nearly 300 miles due east, the British had enjoyed much greater success after a nearly bloodless campaign to occupy the easternmost portion of Maine. Because the boundary between the territory and Canada had long been disputed, the British government ordered Lieutenant General Sir John Sherbrooke to seize the territory from the Penobscot River to New Brunswick as part of its escalation of the war. With one regiment and several warships, the British captured Eastport, Maine, on 11 July without a fight. In September, Sherbrooke was at the head of four regiments in a large squadron that captured Castine on the Penobscot River on 1 September and took Hampden and Bangor two days later. Very little fighting occurred, and because of some judicious administration, the subsequent occupation of the area (which lasted until April 1815) was conducted in an amicable way. Although swords rattled in Boston and plans were discussed in Washington, no effort was made to regain the captured territory.
The administration was too busy anyway with more immediate problems at Washington. The plans discussed by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane and the British government before he left England were wide ranging, and he had latitude to choose specific campaign goals. After taking command of the North America Station at Bermuda in April 1814, Cochrane assessed the situation and decided to center on the Chesapeake Bay region first. To that end, he sent Rear Admiral Cockburn to establish a base at Tangier Island and begin raids while he waited for regiments to arrive from Europe.
Cockburn resumed his aggressive activities, which included stopping the advance of a gunboat flotilla under Captain Joshua Barney, USN, and trapping it in the Patuxent River. When Cochrane finally arrived in August with Major General Robert Ross and an army of 4,500, Cockburn recommended an expedition up the Patuxent toward Washington. This led to the British victory at Bladensburg (24 August) and the brief occupation and burning of Washington over the next day. As a diversion, Captain James Gordon sailed a squadron up the Potomac River to Alexandria, which surrendered without a fight. Despite the effort of naval heroes John Rodgers, David Porter, and Oliver Perry to stop Gordon with fireships and shore batteries, he soon rejoined Cochrane’s fleet.
These events humiliated the administration and threw it into chaos. Armstrong was forced to resign, and James Monroe took his place as secretary of war. After hesitating, Cochrane decided to attack Baltimore, but Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland Militia commanded there and had greatly improved its defenses. Cochrane landed Ross early on 12 September to attack the city’s flank, but the general was killed by a sniper a few hours later. Smith’s advance force broke at the battle of North Point that afternoon, but the extent of the fortifications and the determined resistance maintained during the bombardment of the harbor and Fort McHenry on 13-14 September convinced Cochrane to withdraw. The successful defense of Baltimore nearly made up for the destruction of Washington.
Cochrane left a small force to blockade and raid the Chesapeake and turned his attention toward the Gulf coast. In the spring, he had sent naval and Royal Marine officers to form an alliance with the Creek nation in preparation for an attack on New Orleans. The events of the Creek War (1813-1814) and the competence of Brigadier General Andrew Jackson depleted the strength of the Creek “Red Sticks,” and by September they could offer the British little assistance. Not fully aware of this situation, Cochrane proceeded with a plan that dedicated an army of 10,000 to the campaign.
Cochrane reached the staging point at Jamaica in November and hurried on to the British base in western Florida, where he learned that the Americans controlled Mobile, blocking the overland route to New Orleans. As a result, he and Major General John Keane decided to approach the city by water from the east, resulting in a slow and fatiguing transfer of men from ships to shore. After a small USN flotilla made a brave but unsuccessful stand at the battle of Lake Borgne (14 December), the British pushed on and gained their beachhead at the Villere’ plantation below New Orleans on 23 December.
Jackson had effectively coordinated the defense of New Orleans and ordered an attack on the British the night they arrived. He failed to push them off but set the pattern for what was to come. Even when Major General Sir Edward Packenham arrived with most of the rest of the army, he was not able to penetrate Jackson’s defenses, as he learned in actions on 28 December and 1 January 1815. His grand assault on 8 January quickly turned into the sharpest British defeat of the war, with nearly 2,000 men killed, wounded, and captured. Packenham and his second in command died of their wounds, and his successor, Major General John Lambert, and Cochrane decided to pull out. Jackson held his lines firm, expecting another attack. His brilliant generalship made him the foremost hero of the age.
Lambert and Cochrane landed their troops on Dauphine Island off Mobile to recuperate and then captured nearby Fort Bowyer on 12 February. They might have been contemplating another attempt on New Orleans, but the matter was soon nullified when news of peace arrived. Cochrane had sent Cockburn to Cumberland Island on the border of Georgia and Florida to begin a campaign that would potentially unite with his own, but this did not get under way until January 1815, and it accomplished little until halted in February. Cochrane had extended the blockade to the entire American coast, though the deployment of much of his force for the various campaigns limited the blockade’s overall success. Still, merchants in both nations complained loudly about lost capital (especially at the hands of privateers) and gradually pushed their governments toward peace.
On the oceans, the opposing navies fought to a near draw in 1814 and the last ship-to-ship actions in 1815, with six victories for the RN and seven for the USN. The British ended the cruise of the Essex at Valparaiso, Chile, on 28 March 1814 and captured the USS President off New York on 15 January 1815. The smaller American cruisers, however, continued to show their advantages over RN sloops sent to catch them, and the USS Constitution capped its fighting record with the capture of two warships off Madeira on 20 February. After innumerable delays, peace negotiations had finally started on 8 August 1814 at Ghent in Dutch Flanders. They dragged on for four months as the opposing commissions presented proposals and counterproposals on wide-ranging topics. News of the burning of Washington set the American cause back, but reports of the successful defense of Baltimore and Prevost’s failure at Plattsburgh gave them an advantage. The British representatives had to refer every item to officials in London, while the American delegates argued among themselves. In the end, the British government decided to get out of the war, fearing that the uneasy peace in Europe following Napoleon’s abdication was about to collapse. On 24 December, the delegates signed the Treaty of Ghent, which essentially ordered a return to a status quo ante bellum.