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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Two Years of War
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


The closing act of Jefferson's administration, passed on March 1, 1809, was a repeal of the embargo, whose effect had been so ruinous to American commerce, and the passage of a bill interdicting all commercial intercourse with France and England. Jefferson, after his eight years' term, had, like Washington under the same circumstances, declined a re-election, and James Madison was made President, while George Clinton, Jefferson's second Vice-President, was re- elected. The trouble with France and England continued. The British minister at Washington agreed that the "Orders in Council" should be repealed so far as they affected the United States, but this promise was disavowed by his government, and non-intercourse, which had been suspended, was re-proclaimed. Bonaparte, in March, 1810, issued a hostile decree against American commerce, but in November he revoked this and all similar decrees, and intercourse was resumed between France and the United States. England, however, obstinately refused to annual her hostile acts, and went so far as to station ships of war before American ports, seizing merchantmen, and sending them as legal prizes to British ports. In May, 1811, an encounter took place between the frigate President and the British war-sloop Little Belt. The captain of the latter, instead of answering the hail of Commodore Rogers, fired a shot, which was answered by a broadside. A short engagement ensued, the British losing eleven killed and twenty-one wounded, while the Americans had but one man wounded.

A state of affairs now existed between the two countries which could only end in war if England persisted in her offensive measures. America could not consent to leave her commerce and her seamen at the mercy of British cruisers. Yet the British ministry displayed unyielding obstinacy, and in April, 1812, a new embargo act was passed by Congress, while on the 4th of June a bill declaring war against Great Britain passed the House. On the 17th this bill passed the Senate, and war was proclaimed by the President on the 19th. It was a war for which no adequate provision had been made. The navy of the United States was in no condition to cope with that of England. The regular army numbered but six thousand men, and the other requisites of war were as poorly provided for. On the other hand, the time was opportunely chosen. England was still engaged in her vital struggle with France, which exhausted her resources to such an extent that she could bring but a minor portion of her strength to bear on America. Yet so miserably was the war managed on the part of the United States that the record of the first year was but a succession of shameful disasters, and it was not till 1814 that the Americans began to show a decided ability to win battles. On the water their record was from the outset brilliant and successful.

Efforts were at once made to enlist twenty-five thousand men and to raise fifty thousand volunteers, while one hundred thousand militia were called for to defend the frontiers and the sea-coast. General Dearborn, of Massachusetts, a Revolutionary officer, was appointed commander-in-chief. The first operations of the war were directed against Canada. They were conducted with a mismanagement and incompetency which could but result in disaster. After the repulse of the Indians by Harrison at the battle of Tippecanoe, in 1811, further troubles with the savages arose on the northwestern frontier, against whom marched General Hull, with an army of two thousand men. He was directed to extend his march into Canada and attack the British post at Malden. Yet ere he could reach there the strong American fort at Mackinaw was surprised and taken by the English. The garrison had not even been apprised of the declaration of war, and consequently they were utterly unprepared for an assault. Hull's expedition was shamefully mismanaged. After remaining inactive nearly a month in Canada, he hastily retreated to Detroit, where, soon afterwards, he was attacked by a smaller force of British and Indians. Though he possessed every advantage of position, he suddenly recalled his army within the fort, and the white flag of surrender was displayed, without an effort at defence. Attempts, not very satisfactory, have been made to palliate this act of seeming cowardice, which left the whole North- west at the mercy of the British. General Hull was afterwards court-martialled and sentenced to death, but was pardoned by the President.

In other quarters the same lack of success appeared. On the Niagara frontier, General Van Rensselaer crossed the river and captured the heights of Queenstown. Here he was attacked by a strong force, while the American militia on the other side of the river could not be induced to cross to his aid. In consequence, nearly the whole of his force was killed or captured. A second advance, under General Smyth, ended in a mere look across the river and an abandonment of the design.

There has never, before or since, been displayed such utter incompetency in American generalship as that which marked this disastrous campaign. The bravery of Van Rensselaer was the only relief to the general cowardice of the American leaders. In 1813 the campaign began with the army in three divisions, that of the West under General Harrison, that of the Niagara frontier under General Dearborn, and that of the Lake Champlain region under General Hampton. In the West General Winchester was attacked at Frenchtown, on the river Raisin, by a superior force under Proctor. After a gallant defence, Winchester was taken prisoner by the Indians. Under a pledge of protection from Proctor he agreed to surrender his troops. The British general's pledge was basely violated, the wounded prisoners being left to the tender mercy of the savages.

Harrison, learning of this disaster, fell back, and began a fortified camp, which he named Fort Meigs. This fort was besieged by two thousand British and Indians, under Proctor. After a week's siege, and the repulse of a relieving party, the Indians deserted their allies, and Proctor abandoned the siege. He advanced again in the latter part of July, with a force of four thousand men, the Indians under Tecumseh. After a few days' siege he withdrew, and with a force of thirteen hundred attacked Fort Stephenson, on the site of Sandusky, then held by one hundred and fifty men, under Major Croghan, a youth of twenty- one. Surrender was demanded, under a threat of massacre if the fort was taken, but the brave youth replied that when the fort was taken there would be no one left to kill. An attempt was then made to carry the fort by assault, which was repulsed, and the besiegers fled in a panic, having lost one hundred and fifty men.

General Dearborn's army gained some advantages. General Pike led an expedition against York, in Canada, the great depository of British military stores for the supply of the Western posts. While storming the town the enemy's magazine blew up, with severe loss to the besiegers. Pike was mortally wounded, and the army thrown into confusion. Recovering, they advanced and took the town. The squadron returned to Sackett's Harbor with a large amount of spoils. Shortly afterwards Sir George Prevost assailed the American post at Sackett's Harbor, but failed to take it. On the same day the Americans captured Fort George, on the Canadian side of the Niagara. In November an expedition was sent against Montreal, which proved unsuccessful. Somewhat later Fort George was abandoned, and Fort Niagara was captured by the British, who burned the neighboring towns and villages, in retribution for the burning of the Canadian town of Newark by the Americans. The failures and unimportant successes here chronicled were relieved by two victorious engagements, the victory of Commodore Perry on Lake Erie, and that of General Harrison on the Thames, which call for more particular mention.

Charles Morris

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