When talking about war between Britain and the USA, most people think of the American War of Independence at the end of the eighteenth century. Many are not aware that Britain and the USAwent to war just over thirty years later in what would simply become known as the War of 1812.


Battle of Queenston Heights

The origins of the conflict can be found in the slowly rising tensions during the Napoleonic War. The US, the traditional ally of France, found its trade impeded by British warships. It also pressed those who were British born but had American citizenship into service for the Royal Navy, an act that led to a British warship firing on an American frigate in 1807. This combined with British support for American Indian raids and the US’s expansionist policy towards British Canada led to a declaration of war from the US on 1st June 1812.


Britain, already fighting Napoleonic France, could spare few troops and so initiated a defensive policy in Canada, whilst the US initially had a small and poorly trained army. Furthermore, the unpopularity of the war in some states led to their refusal to contribute troops. In the second half of 1812, the US launched two invasions of Canada; both failed and cost them dearly. However, they regained the initiative when they defeated several Royal Navy ships at the Battle of Lake Erie on the Great Lakes.


A successful British blockade of American ports devastated their exports sector and British raids up and down the coast proved the US’s naval vulnerability. One such raid resulted in British troops sacking Washington, burning the White House to the ground.


With Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, veteran British troops were moved to America and various battles were fought with key victories on both sides. A surge in US leadership under General Andrew Jackson led to an American victory at the Battle of New Orleans and they turned on the offensive.


However, with Napoleon out of the picture, Britain and France were now allies and so several of the initial causes of the war disappeared. Since neither side had major reasons for continuing the warthe two nations were in a stalemate; the Treaty of Ghent was formulated and signed on December 24th 1814.


In the two years of war, very little had been achieved and the border between Canada and the US remained unchanged. The simple terms of the treaty led to a fostering of good terms, the basis of the ‘special relationship’ that the two countries share today. Only the fact that the White House of today is not the original, and had to be rebuilt, lies testament to the enmity that these two cousin nations once demonstrated.