Historian Explains War of 1812’s Impact on National Defense

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.

Source:
U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)