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NEWS | Sept. 2, 2014

War of 1812 part of Army's proud history

By David Vergun Army News Service

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series on the Chesapeake Campaign. Part II will continue with the attack on Bladensburg and Washington, D.C.

The failure to capture Canada, the retreat at Bladensburg, and the burning of the capitol 200 years ago this week are part of what people generally remember about the War of 1812, according to an Army historian.

This largely forgotten war, however, was by-in-large a success for the U.S. Army, given the circumstances prior to June 1812, when the war started, according to Glenn Williams, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Williams edited a pamphlet, "The Chesapeake Campaign," which will be available in print or online by the middle of next month at Dr. Charles P. Neimeyer of the Marine Corps University History Department authored the pamphlet.


Before the War of 1812, the regular Army was about 10,000 strong -- "on paper," Williams said, meaning units were authorized but men would still need to be recruited and trained for them. The actual strength was around 5,000 to 6,000 Soldiers.

The British, on the other hand, had tens of thousands of seasoned veterans, who were fighting Napoleon's Army in Europe. That campaign was won by Britain and her allies in 1814, freeing up these soldiers for North American service.

And, the British navy was second to none in the world and would take command of the seas around the U.S., for the duration of the War of 1812, Williams said, with the U.S. Navy having success only in single-ship actions.

In 1812, there were few seasoned U.S. Army officers and non-commissioned officers for the 35,000-man Army authorized by Congress. Those who had fighting experience on the Indian frontier were placed in charge of new units.

In some respects, the problems of manning prior to the war resemble other pre-war periods in American history, leading up to the world wars, Korea and even today, Williams explained.

Over the last few years, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has told lawmakers during testimony on many occasions that the Army is approaching a critical point where, if manning levels, readiness and modernization continue to decline, the Army is in danger of becoming a hollow fighting force. Although history doesn't repeat itself, Williams said occurrences often seem similar.

What about calling out the Reserve and National Guard during the War of 1812?

They didn't exist in name or capability as today's Reserve Component does, Williams said.

At the time, the states had about 700,000 militiamen, white male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45, who were required to be available for state or national emergencies, he said. The militiamen could be drafted for short periods of time -- generally 30 to 90 days -- but not all were able-bodied, trained or even eager to serve.

More about the pre-war Army of 1812 can be found in the Center of Military History's publication 74-1, Defending the New Nation, by Dr. John R. Maass.


Prime causes of the war included the British seizing of merchant ships and cargoes, in violation of U.S. neutrality, and the involuntary removal of American Sailors from ships to serve aboard British vessels, called impressment. This angered Americans, but didn't drive them all to want a full-fledged war against the United Kingdom again, Williams said.

People living in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., where the Chesapeake Campaign took place, from 1813 to 1814, were divided as well. Federalists generally wanted to maintain good relations with Britain, while the other party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, favored good relations with the French.

Baltimore, a port city and the third largest city in the U.S. at the time, regarded war as a potential economic calamity, since England was its largest trading partner. Even Francis Scott Key, who would become famous later on for writing the "Star-Spangled Banner," opposed the war.

But once the war started, Americans who had opposed it, generally rallied 'round the flag, including Key, Williams said. Key served as an artillery officer in the District of Columbia militia, and fought at the Battle of Bladensburg.

In 1812, things predicatively didn't go well for the Army, as it invaded Canada, which was then known as British North America. The U.S. Army was poorly trained and led, and had significant logistical weaknesses, according to U.S. Army command historian Steven J. Rauch.

Rauch authored the pamphlet "The Campaign of 1812," which describes the war in detail leading up to the Chesapeake Campaign. It can be found on the CMH website at

Richard V. Barbuto, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, stated: "Congress and the Madison administration had not entirely understood the difficulties of expanding the Army and Navy from their meager pre-war strengths. Few citizens were willing to join the Regular Army. There were not enough experienced officers and NCOs, and dependence on state militias was misplaced."

Barbuto's detailed accounts appear in two brochures on the CMH website at

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