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The United States of America: A History
Book 2: Chapter XV - The War With Great Britain


AMERICA was well contented during many, years to be merely a spectator of the Great European War. In spite of some differences which had arisen, she still cherished a kindly feeling towards France—her friend in the old time of need. She had still a bitter hatred to England, her tyrant, as she deemed, and her cruel foe. But her sympathies did not regulate her policy. She had no call to avenge the dishonour offered to royalty by the people of France. As little was it her business to strengthen France against the indignation of outraged monarchs. Her distance exempted her from taking any part in the bloody politics of Europe, and she was able to look quietly on while the flames of war consumed the nations of the Old World. Her ships enjoyed a monopoly. She traded impartially with all the combatants. The energies of Europe were taxed to the uttermost by a gigantic work of mutual destruction. The Americans conveyed to the people thus unprofitably occupied the foreign articles of which they stood in need, and made great gain of their neighbours' madness.

1806 A.D.

But the time came when France and England were to put forth efforts more gigantic than before, to compass the ruin of each other. England gave out a decree announcing that all the coasts of France and her allies were in a state of blockade, and that any vessels attempting to trade, with the blockaded countries were liable to seizure. At that time nearly all the Continent was in alliance with France. Napoleon replied by declaring the British Islands in a state of blockade. These decrees closed Europe against American vessels. Many captures were made, especially by English cruisers. American merchants suffered grievous losses, and loudly expressed their just wrath against the wicked laws which wrought them so much evil.

There was another question out of which mischief arose. England has always maintained that any person who has once been her subject can never cease to he so. He may remove to another country. He may become the citizen of another state. English law recognizes no such transaction. England claims that the man is still an English subject—entitled to the advantages of that relation, and bound by its obligations. America, on the other hand, asserted that men could lay down their original citizenship, and assume another—could transfer their allegiance—could relinquish the privileges and absolve themselves from the obligations which they inherited. The Englishmen who settled on her soil were regarded by her as American citizens and as nothing else.

Circumstances arose which bestowed dangerous importance upon these conflicting doctrines. England at that time obtained sailors by impressment. That is to say, she seized men who were engaged on board merchant vessels, and compelled them to serve on board her ships of war. It was a process second only to the slave-trade in its iniquity. The service to which men were thus introduced could not but be hateful. There was a copious desertion, as opportunity offered, and America was the natural refuge. English ships of war claimed the right to search American vessels for men who had deserted; and also for men who, as born English subjects, were liable to be impressed. It may well be believed that this right was not always exercised with a strict regard to justice. It was not always easy to distinguish an Englishman from an American. Perhaps the English captains were not very scrupulous as to the evidence on which they acted. The Americans asserted that six thousand men, on whom England had no shadow of claim, were ruthlessly earned off to fight under a flag they hated; the English Government admitted the charge to the extent of sixteen hundred men. The American people vehemently resented the intolerable pretension of England. Occasionally an American ship resisted it, and blood was freely shed.

1807 A.D.

When England and France decreed the closing of all European ports against commerce, America hastened to show that she could be as unwise as her neighbours. Congress prohibited commerce with the European powers which had so offended. The people, wiser than their rulers, disapproved this measure, but the Government enforced it. The President was empowered to call out militia and employ armed vessels to prevent cargoes of American produce produce from leaving the country. It was hoped that England and France, thus bereaved of articles which were deemed necessary, would be constrained to repeal their injurious decrees.

Thus for four years commerce was suspended, and grass grew on the idle wharves of New York and Philadelphia. The cotton and tobacco of the Southern States, the grain and timber of the North, were stored up to await the return of reason to the governing powers of the world. Tens of thousands of working people were thrown idle. The irritation of the impoverished nation was fast ripening towards war.
America wanted now the wise leadership which she enjoyed at the period of her revolutionary struggle. Washington had never ceased to urge upon his countrymen the desirableness of being on good terms with England. But Washington was dead, and his words were not remembered. Franklin was dead. Hamilton had fallen by the murdering hand of Aaron Burr. There was a strong party eager for war. The commercial towns on the sea-board dreaded the terrible ships of England, and desired to negotiate for redress of grievances. The people of the interior, having no towns to be bombarded, preferred to try their strength with England in battle. Some attempts at negotiation resulted in failure. At length Congress ended suspense by passing a Bill which declared war against Great Britain.

It was a bolder challenge than America supposed it to be. England, indeed, had her hands full. The power of her great foe seemed to be irresistible. But even then the axe was laid to its roots. In that same month of June Napoleon crossed the river Niemen and entered Russia upon his fatal march to Moscow. A few weeks before, the Duke of Wellington had wrenched from his grasp the two great frontier fortresses of Spain, and was now beginning to drive the French armies out of the Peninsula. England would soon have leisure for her new assailant. But all this was as yet unseen.

When war was declared, England possessed one thousand ships of war, and America possessed twenty. Their land forces were in like proportion. England had nearly a million of men under arms. America had an army reckoned at twenty-four thousand, many of them imperfectly disciplined and not yet to be relied upon in the field. Her treasury was empty. She was sadly wanting in officers of experience. She had declared war, but it was difficult to see what she could do in the way of giving effect to her hostile purposes.

But she held to these purposes with unfaltering tenacity. Four days after Congress had resolved to fight, England repealed those blockading decrees which had so justly offended the Americans. There remained now only the question of the right of search. The British Minister at Washington proposed that an attempt should be made to settle peaceably this sole remaining ground of quarrel. The proposal was declined. The American war party would not swerve from its unhappy determination.

The first efforts of the Americans were signally unsuccessful. They attacked Canada with an army of 2500 men. But this force had scarcely got upon Canadian ground when it was driven back. It was besieged in Fort Detroit by an inferior British army and forced to surrender. The unfortunate General Hull, who commanded, was brought to trial by his angry countrymen and sentenced to be shot. He was pardoned, however, in consideration of former services.

A second invasion followed, closed by a second surrender. During other two campaigns the Americans prosecuted their invasion. Ships were built and launched upon the great lakes which lie between the territories of the combatants. Sea-fights were fought, in one of which the American triumph was so complete that all the British vessels surrendered Many desperate engagements took place on shore. Some forts were captured. Some towns were burned. Many women and children were made homeless. Many brave men were slain. But the invaders made no progress. Everywhere the Canadians, with the help of the regular troops, were able to hold their own. It was a coarse method of solving the question which was in dispute between the countries, and it was utterly fruitless.

At sea a strange gleam of good fortune cheered the Americans. It was there England felt herself omnipotent. She, with her thousand ships, might pardonably despise the enemy who came against her with twenty. But it was there disaster overtook her.

During the autumn months a series of encounters took place between single British and American ships. In every instance victory remained with the Americans.

Five English vessels were taken or destroyed. The Americans were in most of these engagements more heavily manned and armed than their enemies. But the startling fact remained. Five British ships of war had been taken in battle by the Americans. Five defeats had been sustained by England. Her sovereignty of the sea had received a rude shock.

The loss of a great battle would not have moved England more profoundly than the capture of these five unimportant ships. It seemed to many to foretell the downfall of her maritime supremacy. She had ruled the seas because, heretofore, no other country produced sailors equal to hers. But a new power had now arisen, whose home, equally with that of Britannia herself, was upon the deep. If America could achieve these startling successes while she had only twenty ships, what might she not accomplish with that ampler force which she would hereafter possess? England had many enemies, all of whom rejoiced to see in these defeats the approaching decay of her envied greatness.

Among English sailors there was a burning eagerness to wipe out the unlooked-for disgrace which had fallen upon the flag. A strict blockade of American ports was maintained. On board the English ships which cruised on the American coasts impatient search was made for opportunities of retrieving the honour of the service.

Two English ships lay off Boston in the summer of 1813, under the command of Captain Broke. Within the bay the American frigate Chesapeake had lain for many months. Captain Broke had bestowed especial pains upon the training of his men, and he believed he had made them a match for any equal force. He and they vehemently desired to test their prowess in battle. He sent away one of his ships, retaining only the Shannon, which was slightly inferior to the Chesapeake in guns and in men. And then he stood close in to the shore, and sent to Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake an invitation to come forth that they might "try the fortune of their respective flags."

From his mast-head Captain Broke watched anxiously the movements of the hostile ship. Soon lie saw her canvas shaken out to the breeze. His challenge was accepted. The stately Chesapeake moved slowly down the bay, attended by many barges and pleasure-boats. To the over-sanguine men of Boston it seemed that Captain Lawrence sailed out to assured victory. They crowded to house-top and hill to witness his success. They prepared a banquet to celebrate his triumphant return.

Slowly and in grim silence the hostile ships drew near. No shot was fired till they were within a stone-throw of June 1, each other, and the men in either could look into the faces of those they were about to destroy. Then began the horrid carnage of a sea-fight. 'The well-trained British fired with steady aim, and every shot told. The rigging of their enemy was speedily ruined; her stern was beaten in; her decks were swept by discharges of heavy guns loaded with musket-balls. The American firing was greatly less effective. After a few broadsides, the ships came into contact. The Shannon continued to fire grape-shot from two of her guns. The Chesapeake could now reply feebly, and only with musketry. Captain Broke prepared to board. Over decks heaped with slain and slippery with blood the Englishmen sprang upon the yielding foe. The American flag was pulled down, and resistance ceased.

The fight lasted but a quarter of an hour. So few minutes ago the two ships, peopled by seven hundred men in the pride of youth and strength, sailed proudly over seas which smiled in the peaceful sunlight of that summer evening. Now their rigging lies in ruins upon the cumbered decks; their sides are riven by shot; seventy-one dead bodies wait to be thrown overboard; one hundred and fifty-seven men lie wounded and in anguish—some of them to die, some to recover and live out cheerless lives, till the grave opens for their mutilated and disfigured forms. Did these men hate each other with a hatred so intense that they could do no less than inflict these evils upon each other? They had no hatred at all. Their Governments differed, and this was their method of ascertaining who was in the right! Surely men will one day he wise enough to adopt some process for the adjustment of differences less wild in its inaccuracy, less brutish in its cruelty than this.

This victory, so quickly won and so decisive, restored the confidence of England in her naval superiority. The war went on with varying fortune. The Americans, awakening to the greatness of the necessity, put forth vigorous efforts to increase both army and navy. Frequent encounters between single ships occurred. Sometimes the American ship captured or destroyed the British. More frequently now the British ship captured or destroyed the American. The superb fighting capabilities of the race were splendidly illustrated, but no results of a more solid character can he enumerated.

But meanwhile momentous changes had occurred in Europe. Napoleon had been overthrown, and England was enjoying the brief repose which his residence in Elba afforded. She could bestow some attention now upon her American quarrel. Several regiments of Wellington's soldiers were sent to America, under the command of General Ross, and an attack upon Washington was determined. The force at General Ross's disposal was only 3500 men. With means so inconsiderable, it seemed rash to attack the capital of a great nation. But the result proved that General Ross had not underestimated the difficulties of the enterprise.

The Americans utterly failed in the defence of their capital. They were forewarned of the attack, and had good time to prepare. The militia of Pennsylvania and Virginia had promised their services, but were not found when they were needed. Only 7000 men could be drawn together to resist the advance of the English. These took post at Bladensburg, where there was a bridge over the Potomac. The English were greatly less numerous, but they were veterans who had fought under Wellington in many battles. To them it was play to rout the undisciplined American levies. They dashed upon the enemy, who, scarcely waiting to fire a shot, broke and fled towards Washington in hopeless confusion.

That same evening the British marched quietly into Washington. General Ross had orders to destroy or hold to ransom all public buildings. He offered to spare the national property, if a certain sum of money were paid to him. The authorities declined his proposal. Next day a great and most unjustifiable ruin was wrought. The Capitol, the President's residence, the Government offices, even the bridge over the Potomac—all were destroyed. The Navy-yard and Arsenal, with some ships in course of building, were set on fire by the Americans themselves. The President's house was pillaged by the soldiers before it was' burned. These devastations were effected in obedience to peremptory orders from the British Government, on whom rests the shame of proceedings so reprehensible and so unusual in the annals of civilized war. On the same day the British withdrew from the ruins of the burning capital, and retired towards the coast.

The Americans were becoming weary of this unmeaning war. Hope of success there was none, now that Britain had no other enemy to engage her attention. America had no longer a ship of war to protect her coasts from insult. Her trade was extinct. Her exports, which were fourteen millions sterling before the war, had sunk to one-tenth of that amount. Two-thirds of the trading classes were insolvent. Most of the trading ships were taken. The revenue hitherto derived from customs had utterly ceased. The credit of the country was not good, and loans could not be obtained. Taxation became very oppressive, and thus enhanced extremely the unpopularity of the war. Some of the New England States refused to furnish men or money, and indicated a disposition to make peace for themselves, if they could not obtain it otherwise.

Peace was urgently needed, and happily was near at hand. Late one Saturday night a British sloop-of-war arrived at New York bearing a treaty of peace, already ratified Feb. 11, by the British Government. The cry of "Peace! peace!" rang through the gladdened streets. The city burst into spontaneous illumination. The news reached Boston on Monday morning. Boston was almost beside herself with joy. A multitude of idle ships had long lain at her wharves. Before night carpenters were at work making them ready to go to sea. Sailors were engaged; cargoes were being passed oil Boston returned without an hour's delay to her natural condition of commercial activity.

British and American Commissioners had met at Ghent, and had agreed upon terms of peace. The fruitlessness of war is a familiar discovery when men have calmness to review its losses and its gains. Both countries had endured much during these three years of hostilities; and now the peace left as they had been before the questions whose settlement was the object of the war.

The treaty was concluded on the 24th December. Could the news have been flashed by telegraph across the Atlantic, much brave life would have been saved. But seven weeks elapsed before it was known in the southern parts of America that the two countries were at peace. And meanwhile one of the bloodiest fights of the war had been fought.

New Orleans—a town of nearly 20,000 inhabitants—was then, as it is now, one of the great centres of the cotton trade, and commanded the navigation of the Mississippi. The capture of a city so important could not fail to prove a heavy blow to America. An expedition for this purpose was organized. Just when the Commissioners at Ghent were felicitating themselves upon the peace they had made, the British army, in storm and intolerable cold, was being rowed on shore within a few miles of New Orleans.

Sir Edward Pakenham, one of the heroes of the Peninsula, commanded the English. The defence of New Orleans was intrusted to General Jackson. Jackson had been a soldier from his thirteenth year. He had spent a youth of extraordinary hardship. He was now a strong - willed, experienced, and skilful leader, in whom his soldiers had boundless confidence. Pakenham, fresh from the triumphs of the Peninsula, looked with mistaken contempt upon his formidable enemy.

Jackson's line of defence was something over half a mile in length. The Mississippi covered his right flank, an impassable swamp and jungle secured his left. Along his front ran a deep broad ditch, topped by a rampart composed of bales of cotton. In this strong position the Americans waited the coming of the enemy.

At daybreak on the 8th January the British, 6000 strong, made their attack. The dim morning light revealed to the Americans the swift advance of the red-coated host. A murderous fire of grape and round-shot was opened from the guns mounted on the bastion. Brave men fell fast, but the assailants passed on through the storm. They reached the American works. It was their design to scale the ramparts, and, once within, to trust to their bayonets, which had never deceived them yet. But at the foot of the ramparts it was found that scaling-ladders had been omitted in the preparations for the assault! The men mounted on each other's shoulders, and thus some of them forced their way into the works, only to be shot clown by the American riflemen. All was vain. A deadly fire streamed incessant from that fatal parapet upon the defenceless men below. Sir Edward Pakenham fell mortally wounded. The carnage was frightful, and the enterprise visibly hopeless. The troops were withdrawn in great confusion, having sustained a loss of 2000 men. The Americans had seven men killed and the same number wounded.

Thus closed the war. Both countries look with just pride upon the heroic courage so profusely displayed in battle, and upon the patient endurance with which great sacrifices were submitted to. It is pity these high qualities did not find a more worthy field for their exercise. The war was a gigantic folly and wickedness, such as no future generation, we may venture to hope, will ever repeat.

On the Fourth of July 1826 all America kept holiday. On that day fifty years ago the Declaration of Independence was signed, and America began her great career as a free country. Better occasion for jubilee the world has seldom known. The Americans must needs do honour to the Fathers of their Independence, most of whom have already passed away two of whom —John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—died on this very day. They must pause and look back upon this amazing half century. The world had never seen growth so rapid. There were three millions of Americans who threw off the British yoke. Now there were twelve millions. The thirteen States had increased to twenty-four. The territory of the Union had been prodigiously enlarged. Louisiana had been sold by France. Florida had been ceded by Spain. Time after time tribes of vagrant Indians yielded up their lands and enrolled themselves subjects of the Great Republic. The Gulf of Mexico now bounded the Union on the south, and the lakes which divide her from Canada oil north. From the Atlantic on the east, she already looked out UOfl the Pacific on the west. Canals had been cut leading from the great lakes to the Hudson, and the grain which grew on the corn-lands of the west, thousands of miles away, was brought easily to New York. Innumerable roads had been made. The debt incurred in the War of Independence had been all paid; and the still heavier debt incurred in the second war with England was being rapidly extinguished. A steady tide of emigration flowed westward. Millions of acres of the fertile wilderness which lay towards the setting sun had been at length made profitable to mankind. Extensive manufactories had been established in which cotton and woollen fabrics were produced. The foreign trade of the country amounted to forty millions sterling.

The Marquis Lafayette, now an old man, came to see once more before he died the country he had helped to save, and took part with wonder in the national rejoicing. The poor colonists, for whose liberties he fought, had already become a powerful and wealthy nation. Everywhere there had been expansion. Everywhere there were comfort and abundance. Everywhere there were boundless faith in the future, and a vehement, unresting energy, which would surely compel the fulfilment of any expectations, however vast.


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