War of 1812
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War of 1812. If you were going to fight a battle, which would you rather be... small and agile, or big and powerful? .

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War of 1812

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War of 1812

If you were going to fight a battle, which would you rather be... small and agile, or big and powerful?

Did you pick "big and powerful"? Big and powerful opponents may be able to do away with their enemies with a single, well aimed blow. But... what about movement? These big and powerful opponents were often slow and heavy from armor and size. Can they defeat an opponent if they can't catch them?

In this Exploration we're going to find out how these different characteristics affected one of the most important wars in American history, the War of 1812.

The United States had won its independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War, but the British had never left the continent. Many Americans wanted to rid themselves of the British presence, fearing that they would never be truly independent from Britain while the British were still there.

Many Americans wanted to expand beyond the borders they had won with their independence. But the British still occupied Canada beyond the borders to the north.

The wars between Great Britain and France beginning in 1793 led to American ships being seized, or taken, by both the British and the French, for violating trade blockades each nation had imposed on the other. This made many American merchants very angry.

During this same time, the British also began stopping American vessels to look for British Navy deserters. When seamen suspected of being deserters were found, they were impressed into the British Navy. But not all of the men taken were British deserters. Thousands of American-born sailors were impressed between 1803 and 1812.

The Embargo Act of 1807

To protest the seizure of American ships and the impressment of American sailors, President Thomas Jefferson issued an Embargo Act in 1807, forbidding Americans to trade with any foreign ports. He hoped that the loss of trade would hurt Britain and force them to treat Americans with more respect.

Although the loss of American trade did hurt Great Britain, it hurt the American merchants much more. So the Embargo Act was repealed, or ended, in 1809. Thomas Jefferson's peaceful attempt to solve the problems had failed.

Declaration of War

In 1810, several men were elected to Congress that wanted to declare war on Great Britain. They were known as the War Hawks. They quickly gained power and support within Congress, and in 1812 they convinced the president, now James Madison, to declare war on Great Britain.

American Exports

Let's look at the value of American exports through this time period so that you can see just how much effect these different events had on the export values.


Activity 1 on

your worksheet

Military Strengths

When the United States first declared war on Great Britain, her military strength was dwarfed by that of Great Britain. The United States had only a small army of about 7,000 men, and her navy was only 16 ships. Great Britain, on the other hand, had a much larger army, and the largest navy in the world. Here is a chart comparing the differences in the American and British navies. The number of guns the ship could carry indicates its relative size.

The bigger the ship, the more guns it could carry. Therefore, the Ships of the Line were the largest ships, because they could carry the greatest number of guns. The smallest ones carried 64 guns, the largest ones carried 120, and there was a full range in between.

Activity Two

On your Worksheet, figure out the approximate number of guns the U.S. had versus the British!

So... which side would you want to be on? One thing that was to the advantage of the United States, though, was that most of the British military was tied up in the war with France.


President James Madison attempted to overcome the problem of the small size of the U.S. Navy by issuing Letters of Marque and Reprisal to private ship owners. This document authorized its holder to arm his vessel and act as a privateer, or legal pirate, representing the United States. Privateers were allowed to attack the British merchant fleet, and take captured cargo and vessels as prizes.

The privateers were so successful, and in particular, the Baltimore Clippers, that Great Britain was outraged. They began to send more and more of their navy over to America to end this nuisance. They referred to Baltimore, the source of the Baltimore Clippers, as a "nest of pirates".

In 1814, Napoleon was exiled, and Great Britain turned its wartime focus towards America. They launched a land and sea offensive to end the war in America, including their Chesapeake Campaign. During this campaign, 50 British warships sailed up the Chesapeake Bay. They captured and sacked Washington, DC. They burned the Capitol and the White House. Then they headed for Baltimore.

Guarding the entrance to Baltimore harbor sits Fort McHenry, a star-shaped fort. Fort McHenry stood between the British warships and Baltimore in September of 1814 when the British arrived

Fort McHenry overlooks the Patapsco River, which was too shallow for the larger British ships to enter. Most of the British ships anchored at the mouth of the Patapsco River, and only 16 ships headed up the river towards Baltimore.

There were 1,000 soldiers and militia at Fort McHenry when the British arrived. On September 13, 1814, at 6:30 a.m., the British ships began firing on Fort McHenry. At the same time, British troops made an attempt to take Baltimore by land.

The 16 British ships fired on Fort McHenry all through the day and night, and finally stopped the following morning. They had fired between 1500 and 1800 shells at the Fort, and 400 shells had landed within the Fort. But only two American soldiers had been killed, several others had been wounded, and the Fort had survived. The British had not defeated Fort McHenry.

The British army had also failed in their attempt to capture Baltimore by land, and their commander, General Robert Ross, had been killed in the attempt.

America had finally won recognition of its sovereignty from Great Britain.

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