Who 'won' the War of 1812 (again)

I know this has been debated several times on this board, but was having an interesting discussion with a friend of mine who is a military historian, and thought I’d bring the discussion here to see what 'dopers think.

According to my friend, deciding who win’s or loses a war isn’t about how many battles were fought and won, nor how many casualties were inflicted, but about whether or not the goals of the conflict for the various nations involved were fulfilled. My friend asserts that the British war aims were unfulfilled, while the US’s war aims were actually fulfilled before the conflict even started, which means that the US ‘won’ the war.

The discussion went something like this: The British war aims were, A) To contain the US, to prevent it’s further expansion and (optionally) B) to bring the US back into the fold of British direct domination.

The US’s war aims were, A) To have the British stop supporting Native American tribes who were in conflict with the US, B) to stop the British from impressing US sailors, and C) to respect the US’s rights to free trade. Optionally, and as an after thought by the war hawks in Congress, the US wanted to hurt the British in Canada and possibly acquire some of the British possessions in Canada or even bring some or all of Canada into the US sphere of influence or even as part of the union.

Given the above, my friend asserts that the US clearly fulfilled it’s own war aims (the optional invasion of Canada was not, according to my friend, a central war aim of the US, but more an afterthought and ‘just something the US could do at the time to strike at the Brits’) even before the conflict started, since the British had already conceded most of them before the war began. The British did not fulfill any of it’s own war aims, despite the fact that they managed to burn the Capital and succeeded in a series of early battlefield victories in Canada during the debacle of an invasion by the US early on. The critical victories that impacted the war aims of the two countries, according to my friend, were in Baltimore and New Orleans, where the British were soundly defeated…and where those defeats directly impacted the Brit’s aims of containing the US and possibly forcing major concessions that would either bring us back into their direct sphere of influence or at the minimum directly contain any future expansion of the US either southward or westward, relegating us to a being a small sea board nation in the original 13 colony area.

Myself, I was arguing against the above (myself, I called it a draw or a small British victory), but I admit my friend knows a lot more about this stuff than I do (most of my knowledge on this subject comes from a college history course and the fictional novel 1812), and I have to admit that the argument is compelling, from my non-historian perspective.



I vote the U.S. won, by continuing to exist and forcing the Brits to quit messing with us. They were the playground bully, we were the new kid at school. They tried to make us eat dirt, we popped them right in the nose, and earned some respect. Later the nations became best buds for life.

I’d agree with your friend more than you, but with the caveat, as mentioned by your friend, that most of the issues had already been settled with the (first) defeat of Napoleon.

I believe it was best summed up by Will Ferguson: “The Americans won, the Canadians won, the British tied, and the Indians lost.” Who won the most battles isn’t how you count who won a war. What matters is how it ended up.

The Americans accomplished their primary goal of stopping British interference in their affairs and westward expansion.

The Canadians accomplished their primary goal of not being conquered by the Americans.

The British, well, managed to end the war without really losing anything important.

The Indians lost what political and military strength they had.

The War of 1812 was a stupid, dangerous, unnecessary, but probably inevitable war that COULD easily have ended in utter disaster for the US.

From an American standpoint, it was either a draw or a minor victory, depending what you think our aims really were. It’s hard to tell exactly what “we” wanted.

To the extent that Americans still had hopes of taking Canadian territory, well, we failed miserably on that score.

To the extent that it was about standing up to the bully on the block, and paving the way for future Westward expansion, we succeeded.

But the risks were so high, it was probably foolish for the US to go to war. The Union could easily have collapsed, and the USA destroyed as a coherent country. Nothing we gained was worth that risk.

Well since London was burned and not Washington, it must be that the Americans won.

It’s a good thing that war is not fought under Stratego rules. :wink:

Admittedly I don’t have a great knowledge of the War of 1812, but it’s my understanding that Britain’s major war goal in 1812 was defeating the French; the War of 1812 was very much a side-show and only really mattered to them in as much as it affected the war against Napoleon. The US issues with impressments and interference in free trade with France were only there because of the war with Napoleon and became moot points after his defeat in 1814 – so these US war aims were won for them by British victory removing the need for them. The US may have won, but the British didn’t lose.

If A was their goal, they succeeded. The United States never again expanded at British expense. After the War of 1812, and to a large degree because of the disastrous result of the Canadian invasion therein, US expansionism was redirected to the Southwest, against Mexico. The remaining boundary issues with Canada were settled by peaceful compromise.

As Dissonance says, the real British war aim was to defeat Napoleon. The American war was forced upon them. Once it started, they saw an opportunity, and would have liked to do more–if they could have ravaged our coasts at will, they could have negotiated a more favorable peace settlement and even further reduced the threat to their colony. But that would have been lagniappe. The main thing was to defeat Napoleon.

England was a major land force. England was THE sea power. We were very lucky that the British felt their attention should be focused on Napoleon. The U.S. was left free to expand to the west. Canada was “off limits”. England fought some battles, burned the capital and went home. Under different circumstances, they might have stayed and torn us a new one. They were the world power of the time, after all.

Thanks for the replies.

I’m guessing this was tongue in cheek, but in case it wasn’t let me make a similar comparison. During the Afghan war, the Afghani’s never burned Moscow. Does this mean that the Soviets won the Afghan war? Similarly, during Vietnam, the North Vietnamese never burned Washington. Again, does this indicate that the US really won in Vietnam?

No…you misunderstand the point. Their goal wasn’t to prevent US expansion ‘at British expense’ but to prevent US expansion…period. Full stop. They wanted to bottle up the US in our original 13 colonies area, and perhaps even roll us back, possibly even re-incorporating us back into the Empire. It could have worked out that way…for a time the war was VERY unpopular in the New England states, and there was even talk of secession.

Agreed…but the point being made was that the goal of the Brits was to stop ALL expansion of the US. This was why they focused so much effort on capturing New Orleans. Doing so would have effectively halted US expansion, especially coupled with their continued efforts to support stronger native tribes to the west. Had the Brits won they would have stopped the US from expanding in any direction at all…not just to the north and into Canada.

I agree that their main goal was the war against the French. However, after the defeat of Napoleon they were definitely focused on the war here. They moved something like 20,000 troops against New Orleans…this was a major operation for any nation, especially at that time. Hell, that would be difficult to do today.


Point of order: you mean ‘Britain’. The casual habit of freely interchanging ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ right royally pisses off the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish to varying degrees, depending on the subject. Please don’t.

The British now are unaware that there was a war of 1812. I’m not sure what that implies, but it probably implies something. The business of empire involved many minor engagements, of unclear significance either then or now. Perhaps the big picture is the nineteenth century, which ‘Britain’ ‘won’. (Your history textbooks may differ) :slight_smile:

Agreed, we didn’t cover this war in school at all. But then, we didn’t cover that much about the American War of Independence either - except in how it related to the wider picture of battles with the French. The French Revolution and rise of Napoleon was far far more significant in our studies.

The whole issue of whether the US “won” or “lost” the War of 1812 hinges on the extent to which the conquest of Canada was, or was not, a US war aim.

The problem is that, of course, the US “war hawks” pushing for the war quite naturally trumpeted those war aims which sounded noble and reasonable and not those which sounded greedy or opportunistic. So it was all “rights of neutrals” and “British impressment of our sailors = dishonour”, and none of “let’s kick Britian when it’s involved in a life-or-death struggle with Nappy, and steal Canada”.

The reality of it is that the “War Hawks” were all Western and Southern politicians who had the most to gain from expansion against the natives and the brits; the politicians from those New England states most affected by impressment and free trade were not at all in favour of the war. The notion that taking Canada was an “optional” aim isn’t I think the truth: rather, it was if you like the opportunistic motivation behind the other, more creditable “war aims” that were publicly touted.

My own opinion is that taking Canada was a major war aim and one which was obviously frustrated. The brits did not want war, their aims were mostly defensive. Thus, I’d reverse the priority of the battles as you have stated: the crutial battles were the early defeats in the invasion of Canada; the British defeat at New Orleans (fought after peace was signed!) was an irrelevance; the war was a loss for the US, in that their goals were not accomplished by war - most of their ostensible goals (impressment, etc.) were rendered moot, not by force or arms, but by the brit victory over nappy; their major goal (to complete conquest of north america) was a failure.

I would also say that the burning of Washington was an irrelevance; that was part of the “tit for tat” phase of the war, after the frustration of the invasion of Canada, in retaliation for American town-burnings across the border.

You’re setting up an absolute maximum, borderline-fantasy objective as a British war goal, and then defining the war as a British failure because they failed to achieve it.

Part of the problem with defining British war aims is that they didn’t initiate the war. The US declared war on Great Britain, and invaded Canada. The British went to war because they were attacked.

For the first two years, as noted, they were preoccupied by Napoleon and fought mostly on the defensive (and did so very successfully). In summer 1814, they assumed the offensive.

By that time, any thought of containing the US along the eastern seaboard was in ashes. The northern Indians had been crippled by the Battle of Tippecanoe 1811) even before the war started. The Southern Indians were crushed at Horseshoe Bend in March 1814.

So the British attacked Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans, partly in retaliation, partly to crimp our economy, force us to the peace table and negotiate a favorable peace treaty. (The British by that time were desperate for peace themselves, with a national debt equal to more than twice their GDP.)

Would they have liked to have seen the US break up as a result of the Hartford Convention, or to see a powerful Indian confederacy in the Northwest as a permanent barrier to expansion? Sure. Was the war a British failure because those things didn’t happen? Not by any reasonable definition.

Does anyone seriously think that if Napoleon hadn’t been defeated that the Royal Navy would have lifted the blockades on French ports or stopped impressing every able-bodied seaman (American or otherwise) they could get their hands on? The idea that the Americans forced the RN to stop these practices seems odd to me. The end of the war in Europe removed the need for the practices, so the British negotiators were happy to “concede” those points in the treaty negotiations. If the 100 Days hadn’t ended as quickly as it did and Napoleon had regained control of France for the long term, I guarantee the trade embargoes would have gone right back up and RN captains would once again have stolen crew from wherever crew could be got.

In regards to New Orleans, I’m wondering how a “critical victory” can occur after a peace treaty is signed.

Those espousing the view that New Orleans was significant usually argue that the British would have abrogated the treaty if they hadn’t gone a’runnin down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. I have no idea what they base that on.

You seem to be ignoring Tecumseh, and the Creek War. The war wasn’t all about Canada. The British were arming Native Americans, with the object of stopping or rolling back the westward expansion of the US. With the defeat of Tecumseh in the North and of the Creeks in the South (together with the victory at New Orleans, which denied the British control of the Mississippi River), the path for westward expansion was cleared. Clear victory for the US in that regard.

ETA: Had they taken New Orleans, the British would not have readily surrendered it, treaties be damned. It was too precious a jewel.