America’s Military Crises in 1811


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

Two of America’s military crises in 1811 threatened the American republic in a major way. The first of these crises was the Tecumseh confederation, an alliance of Indian tribes under the dual leadership of the Shawnee, Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, which threatened to light the entire Northwest Territory in a blaze of Indian warfare. The second crisis was the clash between the American frigate President and the British sloop-of-war, Little Belt.

Painting of the Battle of the Thames, between American soldiers and the Tecumseh confederation.
The alliance of Indian tribes led to a military crisis in America in 1811. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Battling the British Navy

In the spring of 1811, a small flotilla of British warships, headed by the large frigate Guerrierre, once again began stopping and searching American ships just outside New York harbor. The frigate President was sent to warn the British off, and on the evening of May 16, 1811, the President overhauled and challenged a British ship which the President’s captain mistook in the darkness for the British Guerrierre

The British ship, which turned out to be the 18-gun sloop Little Belt, replied with a cannon shot, and as if to wipe out the disgrace of the Chesapeake, the President poured two broadsides into her and left her a wallowing hulk in 15 minutes. 

The British demanded that the captain of the President be court-martialed. But instead of punishing the President’s captain, Americans cheered the attack on the Little Belt as proof that the American navy was fully capable of standing up to the British in combat.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Pressure to Declare War 

In mid-May, the Republican congressional caucus met to select the Republican presidential nominee for the elections in the fall of 1812. Led by Henry Clay, the caucus “plainly told” Madison “that his being supported as the party candidate for the next Presidency depended upon his screwing his courage to a declaration of war.”

On June 1, Madison finally yielded. He asked Congress for a declaration of war against Great Britain. The House responded promptly with a 79–49 vote in favor of the declaration; Federalists in the Senate slowed the measure down, but they could not stop it, and the war bill passed the Senate, 19–13, on June 17. It was far from a resounding affirmation, but the next day, Madison signed it.

It was also a national catastrophe. The United States was no better prepared to go to war against England than it had been to go to war against the pasha of Tripoli, only now they were squaring off against the most powerful empire on the globe.

Learn more about James McHenry’s army.

War Against the Most Powerful Empire on the Planet

The war of 1812 has become one of the most obscure American wars, and with good reason, since there’s a lot in it, we can only look back upon it with regret. For one thing, the Royal Navy possessed 219 ships-of-the-line and 296 frigates; the United States had five frigates and a flock of sloops, schooners, and privateers.

Some feverish pre-war preparations had set the size of the United States Army at 10,000 men. Still, by the time of the declaration of war, only 6750 had been recruited. And then there was the ballyhoo about seizing Canada.

A painting of Battle of Queenston, the first major battle in the War of 1812.
Today, America’s war on the most powerful empire at the time can be looked back on with regret, due to heavy casualties and damages it took. (Image: Library & Archives Canada/Public domain)

The Attempt to Seize Canada

Admittedly, Upper Canada was thinly settled—hardly more than 50,000 immigrants from Britain and former American Loyalists—and the entire British garrison for Canada counted no more than 5,600 Regular British infantry. Even so, there was a severe political disconnect between declaring war in defense of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” but then launching a land invasion of Canada.

“If you have a field to defend in Georgia,” asked Josiah Quincy, “it would be very strange to put up a fence in Massachusetts. And yet how does this differ from invading Canada, for the purpose of defending our maritime rights?” That is, supposing such an invasion was even practicable. And it certainly gave no cheer to Republican hearts when Albert Gallatin announced that the war should be financed by excise taxes—exactly the hated taxes that had triggered the Whiskey Rebellion and which Jefferson had eliminated.

As it was, Canada turned out to be a more difficult nut to crack than anyone had imagined. Madison’s secretary of war, William Eustis, drew up a comprehensive plan for invading Canada, with three separate forces crossing over into Upper Canada from Ft. Detroit, into the Niagara Peninsula, and into Lower Canada from Plattsburg, New York, to capture Montreal. 

Learn more about John Jay’s treaty.

Things Didn’t Go According to the Plan

It fizzled ingloriously. The creaking commander of the invasion of Upper Canada, William Hull, had last commanded troops in action in 1779. He managed briefly to get across the Detroit River in July 1812, only to lose heart after several small-scale skirmishes and retreated to Ft. Detroit, where he was besieged by British regulars under Major General Isaac Brock and finally surrendered to Brock on August 16 without firing a shot in resistance.

The invasion of the Niagara peninsula got underway in October but met with a bloody nose at the Battle of Queenston Heights. After that, it degenerated into quarrels over seniority between the titular American commander, Stephen van Rensselaer of the New York militia, and Alexander Smyth, a regular army brigadier-general who refused to take orders from a mere militiaman. 

The invasion of Lower Canada went the same dismal way. Jefferson’s former secretary of war, 62-year-old Henry Dearborn, the U.S. Army’s senior major-general, lurched not toward Montreal but across Lake Ontario to attack York, now modern-day Toronto, the capital of Upper Canada, in April 1813. 

The militia got out of hand and burned the public buildings there to no particular purpose, and then a month later, abandoned it. Prostrated by typhoid fever, Dearborn resigned his commission in July.

Common Questions about America’s Military Crises in 1811

Q: How did the clash between the American frigate, President, and the British ship, Little Belt, occur?

When the President’s captain mistook the Little Belt for another ship called the Guerrierre and challenged it, the battle ended with victory for America. However, it was simultaneously a step toward one of America’s military crises.

Q: How was Madison pressured into war with Great Britain?

When the Republican congressional caucus met to decide the next Republican nominee for the presidency, Madison was told that his nomination depended on declaring a war against Great Britain. Thus one of America’s military crises in 1811 commenced.

Q: What was the plan for the American invasion of Canada?

Attempting to address one of America’s military crises, three forces would be sent into Canadian territory. One would focus on Upper Canada, another on the Niagara peninsula, and one on Lower Canada. All three failed to go according to plan.

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