WASHINGTON — The War of 1812 was a watershed moment in the nation’s development of a strong national defense system, a military historian said this week, as it provided justification for building up the Navy and changed the nation’s attitude toward strengthening the central government.
Michael Crawford, a senior historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, made that observation Feb. 7 during a “DOD Live” bloggers roundtable.
Crawford said the United States declared war against the United Kingdom because “It wanted to end impressments of its citizens into the Royal Navy.”
“[The United States] wanted to obtain recognition of the maritime rights of its merchantmen against illegal blockades, searches and seizures, and it wanted to stop British support of hostile Native Americans against the United States,” he said.
At the time, President James Madison and his war planners developed a strategy to achieve these goals. That strategy largely focused on a land-troop invasion of British-owned Canada, ignoring a naval strategy. It was expected to be a quick and decisive victory for the Americans, Crawford said, as British attention was focused on engagements with Napoleon.
But as the Canadian campaign began, it became clear that it wouldn’t go as Madison and his war planners had hoped it would. By 1815, two and a half years after the initial engagement, all attempts to invade and occupy Canada had failed.
During that time, Crawford said, the United States adopted a largely defensive posture against the British. The U.S. military had repulsed major invasions at Plattsburgh, N.Y, and in New Orleans.
But the United States suffered a “ravaging of the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, a major agricultural region, and the capture and burning of our capital,” Crawford said.
“Furthermore,” he added, “a tight British blockade of the American coast had brought the U.S. government to the brink of financial collapse.”
The war eventually ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which restored America to its prewar conditions with no loss or gain, Crawford said, and the conversation turned toward the role The War of 1812 played in strengthening the Navy.
At the onset of the war, he said, the Navy had a small fleet and focused largely on harbor defense. However, he added, it became increasingly apparent that the United States needed to develop naval power to avoid defeat.
“Early in the war, we lost an army,” Crawford said. “And so the people in Washington — the war planners — quickly came to understand that the conquest of Canada depended on control of the waterways, especially Lake Ontario.”
The result was a build-up of Navy vessels on the Great Lakes. By late 1814, the Navy had 400 men on ships at sea and 10,000 men on ships on the Great Lakes.
This buildup allowed for some important victories during the war, Crawford said, but those victories also drew attention to losses that that resulted from insufficient naval power. He cited conflicts at Lake Champlain and along the Chesapeake Bay as examples.
The British had an army of 10,000 invading upstate New York. An American naval victory in Lake Champlain threw that army back into Canada, Crawford said, because without control of Lake Champlain, British supply lines were vulnerable. But a lack of U.S. naval power allowed the British to wreak destruction up and down the Chesapeake Bay, he added.
“All of these events convinced the nation’s leaders, as well as the nation’s people, that we needed both an adequate navy and an adequate army if we wanted to be an adequate nation,” he said.
But before the end of the war, congressional Republicans didn’t support building a strong Navy, Crawford said, believing that an ocean-going Navy would draw the United States into war unnecessarily and require high taxes that would corrupt the political system, benefit mainly financiers, and hurt the common people.
But by the end of the war, he said, people of all political stripes witnessed the importance of having a strong, centrally controlled military.
“Many Republicans and all Federalists were committed to a strong Navy, an adequate, professional Army, and the financial reforms necessary to support them,” Crawford said.
“After the war, Congress … approved an ambitious naval expansion program and a regular Army of 10,000 men,” he continued. “They raised taxes to pay for these, and they created the Second National Bank as a tool for government financing.”
The War of 1812 also changed the U.S. position on the global stage, Crawford said.
“Before the war,” he explained, “the United Kingdom considered the United States to be a commercial rival and potential enemy, to be thwarted through confrontation wherever possible. After the war, the United Kingdom sought accommodation with the United States, considering the friendship of the United States as something to be curried as an asset.”
This change in thinking, Crawford said, was a direct result of the British recognizing that the United States had newfound political unity, a strong Army and Navy, and sound fiscal underpinnings.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)