America's First Defeat

by allen lutins

The scene: U.S. troops carry on hostilities to "liberate" a nation. As the confrontation wears on, the public (and finally the American soldiers themselves) come to doubt both the U.S.'s aims and its ability to win. Ultimately, the troops are recalled; when peace is declared, it is evident that in terms of resources and human lives, the U.S. was defeated. Vietnam? Iraq? How about Canada! Contrary to popular notions of U.S. history, the Vietnam War was not the first war that the U.S. lost (or perhaps more accurately, failed to win). That distinction belongs to the War of 1812, a war fairly unfamiliar to most U.S. citizens today, and one which in its day was as controversial as the Vietnam War was in its time.

Our grade-school history books claim that the main cause of the war was that U.S. ships trading with Napoleonic France were being hassled by the British. This activity did occur, for Britain was at war with Napoleon at the time, and U.S. commerce was aiding France at the time. However, the British repealed the orders to search U.S. ships a day before the U.S. declared war. Granted, communication was slow at the time, and the U.S. did not learn of the fact until five weeks later. But why, if this was the case, did the U.S. remain at war for two and a half years? A desire to expand beyond the Appalachian Mountains was one of the primary reasons for going to war against Britain in 1776 (Britain had declared that no settlers could legally penetrate this barrier), and the country's desire to expand was invoked as justification for wars against Canada, Mexico, Florida and the native Americans throughout the country's early history. In 1812, the U.S. attempted to take over Canada, which was still in British hands at the time. Britain would likely have defeated the U.S. swiftly had had they not also been involved in war in Europe.

American Dissent

The War of 1812 was very unpopular at home. Many Americans sympathized with Britain in its war against Napoleon. The Declaration of War against Britain, on 18 June 1812, passed 79-49 in the House and 19-13 in the Senate. Only 3 of New York's 14 representatives voted for war. Of 50,000 slots authorized in the U.S. Army, only 10,000 volunteers came forth.

Anti-war sentiment ran highest in New England, led by the Federalist Party. Perkins (see further reading below) notes that upon declaration of war, "In many New England seaports church bells tolled a dirge, shops closed, and ships' flags flew at half-mast. Bostonians hissed two prowar congressmen, and another was mobbed at Plymouth." Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong even attempted secret negotiations with Britain with a plan (supported by Federalists) for New England to secede from the Union!

Conquering Canada

The primary goals of the War of 1812 were conquering Florida, at the time native American territory, and Canada, then British territory. Although the U.S. ostensibly went to war over maritime issues, John Randolph of Virginia noted, "Agrarian cupidity, not maritime rights, urges this war. Ever since the report of the Committee on Foreign Relations came into the House, we have heard but one eternal monotonous tone - Canada! Canada! Canada! Not a syllable about Halifax, which unquestionably should be our great object in a war for maritime security."

U.S. leaders were confident of easily taking over our neighbor to the north. William Eustis, the U.S. Secretary for War declared: "We can take the Canadas without soldiers, we have only to send officers into the province and the people . . . will rally round our standard." John C. Calhoun claimed that "In four weeks from the time that a declaration of war is heard on our frontier, the whole of Canada will be in our possession." James Madison similarly proclaimed that "[t]he acquisition of Canada this year will be a mere matter of marching," and Henry Clay boasted, "I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet."

A variety of motives contributed to this sentiment. The Rev. McLeod described the war as "extending the principles of representative democracy - the blessings of liberty, and the rights of self-government - among the colonies of Europe." A Virginia newspaper (the Virginia Argus of Richmond) was more frank about the "advantages to be derived from the acquisition" of Canada, including "the suppression of a great deal of smuggling [and] the curtailment...of the British fur trade..."

The U.S. had made feeble attempts during the Revolutionary War to invade Canada. In September of 1775, Col. Ethan Alan was taken prisoner during an unsuccessful attempt to capture Montreal. Three months later, Gen. Montgomery led an attack on Quebec during a blinding snowstorm; Montgomery was killed and Gen. Benedict Arnold was wounded. This attack also failed, and half the American forces were killed or wounded.

Attempts to invade Canada during the War of 1812 failed even more spectacularly. An early attempt to invade failed before it began when Gen. William Hull, reportedly frightened into a state of near incoherence, surrendered his entire army at Detroit without firing a shot. Two months later another attempt was bungled when Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer failed to persuade his militia to cross the U.S.-Canada border. A small detachment of troops which entered Canada was shot down and forced to surrender while Van Rensellaer's troops stood by and watched. Another invasion attempt, on 19 November 1812, collapsed when American troops refused to leave New York State and forced their leader, Gen. Henry Dearborn, to march them back to Pittsburgh. Less than two weeks later, Gen. "Apocalypse" Smythe twice ordered his troops to cross the Niagara, both times failing in his courage and calling off the attacks. On returning from the second attempt, the soldiers turned their weapons on Smythe, forcing him to flee to Virginia.

The following April, U.S. troops attacked again in an unsuccessful attempt to gain control of Lake Ontario. Granted, the U.S. did win some battles, but once Britain was freed from its involvement against France, defeat was inevitable.

U.S. Losses

In 1813, Buffalo, New York was burned to the ground. In July of 1814, Moose Island and Eastport, Maine were captured and occupied by the British, who forced Americans there to pledge an oath of allegiance to King George. The following August, the British defeated U.S. forces at Maryland, and on August 24th burned down the Capitol Building and the White House. Parts of New York were captured by Sir George Prevost the next month, and the British began a naval blockade of the entire northeastern United States. The British threatened to invade Boston next, at which point the U.S. reluctantly acceded to sign a peace agreement. The most famous American victory, Jackson's campaign at the Battle of New Orleans, actually took place two weeks after the war ended; the slow communication of the day prevented him from knowing this.


As in the Vietnam War, the U.S. considered its position at the end of the War of 1812 a draw. In retrospect, both wars could reasonably be considered a loss to this country, having failed in our expansionist goals, having lost ground to the "enemy," and having expended human lives and extraordinary resources for naught.

Further Reading

I have posted Michael Lyle's point-by-point rebuttal of my article for a 'fair and balanced' approach to this issue. Also see:

Morison, Samuel E., Dissent in the War of 1812
Perkins, Bradford, This Unnatural War
both in

Fine, Sidney and Gerald S. Brown, eds., 1976. The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues, Vol I (fourth ed.). Macmillan, New York.

Zinn, Howard, 1980. A People's History of the United States. Harper & Row, New York.

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