When we think of the War of 1812, or any other early-American conflict at that, we naturally sympathize with the Americans, our founding fathers and ancestors. But the British, our common enemies, also had an impressive and admirable military with skilled, well-trained generals, officers, and soldiers. Their tactics and strategy on the battlefield won the British Army many battles on all fronts, and the British Royal Navy dominated the entire Atlantic Ocean.
The official British Regular Army was established in 1707. The British Parliament passed the Act of Union, which combined the English, Scottish, and Irish regiments into a single force. This army became one of the strongest powers in the world later that century. The Royal Navy, Britain’s maritime war force, was also created as a result of the 1707 Act of Union. England’s navy, which had been growing in size since as early as 900 A.D., merged with Scotland’s three warships to become the British Royal Fleet, the largest in the world during the 18th and 19th centuries. No one dared to attack the newly-united kingdom of Britain directly until World War I began in 1907. Their military maintained a strong influence throughout Europe and the Americas, and suffered very few losses. (“History”)
During the War of 1812, the British forces were stationed in Canada. In this war, they were mostly on the defensive side. This was not how Britain usually operated, but they were unprepared for the war and did not have enough reinforcements or resources coming from England to launch many attacks against the United States. Since, back in Europe, England was prioritizing a war with Napoleon on their own doorstep, they could not spare anything for the forces stationed across the ocean in Canada. If the war in Europe was lost, then Britain would lose its independence and become part of Napoleon’s Empire. As well as being outnumbered, the British in Canada were also at a geographical disadvantage. Their already-small force needed to be divided between outposts in Quebec City, Montreal, and Northern Canada. (McGuigan, Ron)
Though they were fighting to stay alive on land, the British still dominated the open seas. They had hundreds of large, heavily-manned, heavily-gunned warships known as Men-of-War, with up to 124 cannons on each ship. Almost four-thousand sailors manned the ships around America all together. Some of these seamen were undoubtedly impressed from seized American vessels before the war. (Shmoop Editorial Team) The British wanted to take advantage of their domination at sea in every way possible. They blockaded ports, attempting to cut off trade and create an economic standstill. They tried to take control of the Great Lakes as well, but didn’t have as much of an advantage with so many of their vessels stationed in the blockades. Also, the Americans were already prepared to fight the British with their own ships in the Lakes. Many naval battles were fought in the Great Lakes, including the Battle of Lake Erie. The British were defeated in this battle, and therefore lost control of the city of Detroit. The Royal Navy was forced to retreat back up the St. Lawrence River. (“The Battle of Lake Erie”)
British soldiers on land were called Regulars. During the War of 1812, they would have been mostly stationed at camps or in Canadian cities. Only about 6,000 British men served in Canada at the time. Each soldier had his own daily routine. After waking up early, around 3 or 4 a.m., they began their duties. They often marched around the area, in any kind of weather, wearing special marching uniforms. This was a British military custom; they considered it a proper way of demonstrating strength and discipline. Each soldier had a different job. Some would cook, sew and mend uniforms, clean, or act as servants to officers. Every British soldier was issued a musket, which is a long-ranged firearm widely used in battle at that time. They had blades, called bayonets, attached to the end of the barrels, which were used for hand-to-hand combat. Officers also received smaller flintlock pistols and light, curved cavalry swords. After firing a shot, the soldier would need to place a new musket ball and gunpowder into the barrel of the musket and push them down with the ramrod, which is a long rod stored under the barrel of the rifle. As you can imagine, this process is very time-consuming; many soldiers lost their lives after the first shot. (Henderson, Robert)
It seemed that the British forces in North America could be easily crushed, but they had another ally: the Native Americans. They gave the Indians guns and encouraged them to fight against the Americans and attack settlers coming into their land. This made the Americans especially angry, and was one of the reasons why they declared war on June 18, 1812. The large majority of Natives were allies of Britain until October 5, 1812, when their leader, Tecumseh, was killed in the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh had rallied all the Indian tribes to fight together against the Americans, and at the loss of their leader much of the Native American support for Britain withdrew. (“Tecumseh”)
On August 24, 1814, the British defeated the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg in Bladensburg, Maryland. After the victory, General Robert Ross led his forces to the United States’ capital, Washington D.C. There they burned several public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Though General Ross saw this as a substantial victory, both the Americans and much of Britain were shocked by the burnings, seeing them as needless vandalism. However, Ross suffered no consequences for going too far with the destruction of the unguarded capital. He was killed before the Battle of North Point on September 12, 1814. (“British Capture and Burn Washington”)
Though the British were our nation’s enemy in the War of 1812, we can still recognize and even appreciate their superior military warfare and tactics. Britain had professional soldiers and a navy that was widely considered to be the greatest in the world. But despite their advantages, they were far from home and unprepared for the sudden war. In the end, the United States prevailed over their British adversaries. On December 14, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the War of 1812 officially ended. (“Treaty of Ghent”) The British returned to Europe to join the fight with Napoleon, and America laid down their weapons and began working toward a bright and promising future.
“The Battle of Lake Erie.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
“British Capture and Burn Washington.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
Henderson, Robert. “Morning Routine of the British Soldier in the War of 1812.” Morning Routine of the British Soldier in the War of 1812. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
“History.” – British Army Website. Crown Copyright 2011, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
McGuigan, Ron. “The British Army Stationed in British North America: 1812 – 1815.” The British Army Stationed in British North America: 1812 – 1815. The Napoleon Copyright 1995-2013, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “The War of 1812 Statistics.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 02 May 2014.
“Tecumseh.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
“Treaty of Ghent.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.