America’s War with Great Britain


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

After America’s war with Great Britain became official, Oliver Hazard Perry, a lieutenant in the American navy, was sent out to take charge of the tiny base at Presque Isle on Lake Erie in March 1813. He managed to build a flotilla of ten small ships, led by two 20-gun brigs, Lawrence and Niagara and took them out to challenge a British lake squadron of six medium-sized ships.

A painting of USS United States vs HMS Macedonian, which led to capturing and bringing Macedonian back to the United States.
The war with the British Empire had surprising victories for America at first. (Image: Museum of Fine Arts/Public domain)

America’s War Victory

Perry ran up his pennant on board Lawrence, along with a blue flag bearing the white-lettered motto Don’t Give Up The Ship. These had been the dying words of Capt. James Lawrence, captain of the ill-starred frigate Chesapeake, which had been captured by HMS Shannon earlier that summer.

Perry found the British squadron off Put-in-Bay on September 10, 1813 and cleared for action. The British initially had the upper hand, pummeling the Lawrence and forcing Perry to transfer his command and flag to the Niagara. But Perry’s ship handling was impeccable, and after three hours, the British ships surrendered.

Nor was Lake Erie the only surprising victory for the U.S. navy in this over-matched war. One of the six frigates laid down at the time of the Quasi-War, the frigate Constitution met and captured the British frigate Guerrierre in single combat off Halifax in August 1812 and sank the British frigate Java the following December. 

Yet another of the Quasi-War frigates, the United States captured the British frigate Macedonian in October 1812, and the sloop Hornet captured the British sloop Peacock the following year. But these were only pinpricks, and pinpricks in the hide of a Royal Navy whose resources were thinly stretched everywhere around the globe in Britain’s death struggle with Bonaparte.

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Great Britain Had Been Underestimated 

When the American frigate Essex not only captured the British sloop Alert and then bagged fifteen British merchantmen as prizes, the Royal Navy turned a full squadron loose in pursuit and cornered the Essex and sank her off the coast of Chile.

What was worse, Napoleon, who had drained his vast resources fighting wars in Spain and Russia, had finally been cornered, defeated, and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba—thus freeing up British troops and British ships to undertake their own offensive campaigns against the American coastline.

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A Campaign for Revenge

In a campaign of revenge for the destruction of York, a combined British naval and army expedition under the command of Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Major General Robert Ross lunged up the Chesapeake Bay. They landed 4,000 infantry—the 4th, 21st, 44th, and 85th Regiments of Foot—fresh from the campaigns against Napoleon plus a Corps of Colonial Marines composed of fugitive slaves who had been recruited by the British to fight their former masters.

Cochrane, who had lost a brother at Yorktown, despised the Americans. Cochrane landed at Benedict, on the Patuxent River, brushing aside a hastily-assembled American defense force at Bladensburg, Maryland, and descending on Washington City itself. 

An illustration of the buildings burning in Washington.
The British burned almost all public buildings in Washington. (Image: National Archives at Library of Congress/Public domain)

On August 24, the British burned the Executive Mansion, the Capitol, the Treasury, and every other public building except the Patent Office and the headquarters of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. And they spared that only because the British were using it as a command post.

Peace with the Enemy

In Hartford, Connecticut, an ad hoc convention of New England Federalists met in December 1814, full of angry and malevolent talk about amending the Constitution to ban embargoes, impose presidential term limits, and prevent easy declarations of war. 

Madison was relieved beyond description when, in February 1815, the British offered to end the war on a return to the pre-war status quo. Madison would accept no third term, and in the last weeks of his presidency, Madison’s secretary of the Navy thought “the President never seemed so happy as now.”

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Change, for Better or Worse

Federalism had been destroyed by its cockpit of personalities, starting with Hamilton. But at least it had had all the bright ideas on its side. The Republicans and the Anti-Federalists before them had great personalities—Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Luther Martin—but the War of 1812 had exposed the shallowness of their intellectual roots. 

Contemptuous of commerce and manufacturing, they had taken the republic into a war that required quite a good deal in terms of commerce and manufacturing. Impatient with the mechanics of debt and credit and filled with venom toward banks, they came up short of money to finance the war. They were forced to turn in 1814 to private financiers to guarantee the loans necessary to keep the wartime treasury solvent.

James Madison departed from the government’s capital he had done so much to create a month after the inauguration of his successor, James Monroe. There would be no other veterans of the Constitutional Convention to fill his office, no more survivors of the Continental or Confederation Congresses that had given birth to independence. It was the end of the Age of the Founders.

Common Questions about America’s War with Great Britain

Q: What was an example of America’s early victories in the war with Great Britain?

One surprising victory in the earlier stages of America’s war with Great Britain was that of Officer Hazard Perry, who, with his crew, faced off against a British squadron on September 10, 1813. His performance may have been the key to the British surrendering to the US navy.

Q: How did Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat and exile affect America’s war with Great Britain?

After Napoleon was defeated and exiled, America’s war with Great Britain took a turn because many British troops and ships were free to focus on the war with America.

Q: How did the British take revenge for the destruction of York?

They sent a combination of the British navy and army for an expedition under the command of Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Major General Robert Ross. The ultimate goal was to reach Washington City. They burned every public building there except for the ones they were using themselves.

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