Who Won the War of 1812?

The title poses an interesting question. Conventional history says that on land, the war was, at best a draw. The U.S. Navy gave the Royal Navy a bloody nose at sea, and the U.S. maintained its independence. This last result makes the war a strategic win for the U.S. Research suggests that the perspective of victory depends on whether one sits in London, Ottawa, or Washington, D.C.

James Madison asked for a declaration of war as a means to forcibly eject the British from the forts they maintained on U.S. soil. It was also about stopping British interference with U.S. trade with European countries, some of whom were allied with the French. And last, end the practice of stopping U.S. merchant ships and kidnapping (the more common word is impressing) U.S. citizens and forcing them to serve on Royal Navy ships.

From Washington’s perspective, the war was all about sovereignty. Madison wanted the U.S. to be able to conduct foreign policy without interference from other nations. In the Treaty of Ghent (signed on February 17th,1815), the British agreed to leave their forts, stop inciting Native Americans against American settlers, and return all U.S. territory seized by the British Army. With Napoleon defeated and negotiations underway that would ultimately send him to exile on Elba, the British no longer needed men for the Royal Navy, thus ending impressment. England also agreed to remove all restrictions on U.S. trade.

In both the British Parliament and the Foreign Office, many influential MPs and diplomats were still smarting from the loss of the Thirteen Colonies in 1783. They viewed the United States as a rebellious child that had run amok and needed to be taught a lesson. Eventually, English politicians thought the U.S. would come to its senses and rejoin the Empire. As a result, the British Parliament passed laws knowing they would anger U.S. citizens. Yet, despite the animosity caused by the British Parliament’s high-handed actions, the United Kingdom remained the U.S.’s largest trading partner.

From a military perspective, the British Army defeated the U.S. Army when it invaded Canada, landed in Maryland and burned our capital. At sea, the small U.S. Navy defeated Royal Navy ships. But to be fair, the bulk of the British Army and the Royal Navy were occupied fighting the French and their Allies, and the fighting in North America was a sideshow.

Little did any of the diplomats negotiating the Treaty of Ghent in the fall of 1814 know that Napoleon would escape from Elba on March 20th, 1815. Ultimately, Napoleon would be defeated at Waterloo and sent to St. Helena in October 1815 in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821.

When Canadians discuss the War of 1812, they see it as a Canadian victory. The U.S. invasion united the French Canadians with those who immigrated from England and other countries to Canada to seek a new life and the 50,000 Loyalists who left during and right after the American Revolution. The immigrants joined the British Army to help stop the invaders.

The Canadian perspective is that the War of 1812 gave the country a sense of national identity that it never had before the war began. Over the next century, Canadian leaders found ways to slowly loosen the bonds of British Colonial rule without resorting to an armed rebellion.

Amédée Forestier painting of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent with John Quincy Adams shaking hands with Baron Gambier wearing the uniform of a Royal Navy admiral.

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