Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 5: December 2006


The Duke of Wellington, the Peninsular War and the War of 1812

Part I: North America and the Peninsular War -- Logistics

By John R. Grodzinski

To most British historians, the War of 1812, or the Second American War as it is sometimes known, is an obscure contest, a sideshow to the much larger conflict waged against Napoleon’s France. British soldiers who served in North America between 1812 and 1815, were regarded somewhat indifferently in contrast to the favouritism extended to the “P[eninsular] and W[aterloo]” boys who fought on the continent. Surgeon William Dunlop of the 2nd Battalion, 89th Foot, may have best summed up their sentiments; upon hearing of the victory at Waterloo, Dunlop quipped, “thank God he [Wellington] managed to do without us …”[1]

These same soldiers can easily be cast as an earlier version of Slims 14th Army in Burma during the Second World War or with the famed D Day Dodgers that fought in Italy. With that in mind, one could possibly conclude there is little relationship between Burgos and Queenston Heights, the Crossing of the Bidossa and Stoney Creek or the Battle of Toulouse and Chippawa or Lundy’s Lane, or any event from the Peninsular War and the Second American War.

In truth they are interrelated and were incorporated into British strategic planning and more specifically, the Duke of Wellington’s strategic and operational thinking. As the commander of the only large field force employed in continuous operations, Wellington was uniquely interested in how events elsewhere might affect the financial, materiel, manpower and naval support he received.

The Duke never visited North America, but events on the western side of the Atlantic between 1807, when relations between Britain and America began spiralling towards war, and 1812, when war finally broke out, caused him concern over his supply of foodstuffs, while the demands of this distant operational theatre between 1812 and 1814 placed added strain on a military system already under duress.

Similarly, as will be discussed in the text, historians have examined the War of 1812 and the Peninsular War, but examinations of their interrelationship have been restricted to a single element, such as trade, and much of that has been general or even wrong. Indeed recent historians have repeated some of these errors in their work.[2]

 This paper will examine the relationship between events in North America and the Peninsular War; it will focus on how Wellington, an operational level commander, dealt with four specific aspects of the two theatres: the effect of the   War of 1812 on the supply of grain to the Peninsula; Wellington’s assessments of the conduct of operations in that theatre; the provision of reinforcements to North America and the matter of Wellington’s appointment as overall commander in British North America.

North America and the Peninsular War: Logistics

An oft-quoted maxim of unknown provenance, offers that military amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy and professionals study logistics.[3] If this is indeed the case, then most soldiers must surely be amateurs and military historians even worse off as they normally give lip service to an important aspect of their research. In his classic study of logistics, historian Martin van Creveld, charged that even when historians mention logistics, “references to them are often crude in the extreme.”[4]

This shameful oversight is applicable to the Napoleonic era and in particular, the major British land effort of the war, operations in the Iberian Peninsula. Sir Charles Oman, the most respected chronicler of the Peninsular War, noted the importance of logistics in his study of “Wellington’s Army,” writing that “the whole future of the army in 1809, depended on whether the Commissariat Department [responsible for provisions] would be able to rise to the height of its duties.”[5] In this book, Oman has a single chapter that provides an overview of the commissariat and logistics, while his seven-volume study of the Peninsular War from 1809 to 1814 contains not a single entry under the commissary-general or it’s key officials. The five volumes of Sir John Fortescue’s “History of the British Army” that deal with the Peninsula and William Napier’s six-volume history of the war there offer little more.[6]

The lack of interest in logistical matters can likely be attributed to a preference for writing about soldiers, artillery barrages, infantry assaults and cavalry charges, rather than the struggles over daily, weekly and monthly returns, the heroic efforts of deputy assistant-commissary-generals, bullock drivers and muleteers in getting supplies to the front, or the commissariat officials in securing markets for grain. It is only natural to enjoy reading of the intensity of battle than the method of land transport. Historians and writers are drawn to the sharp end, which is evidenced by the number of battle studies, many of them recounting, yet again, the same battle. Inevitably, their focus becomes the great first Duke of Wellington and his “art of war.” Fred Myatt believes that something important is missed and that perhaps the cart should be put before the horse; in his “Soldier’s Trade,” he suggests the necessary foundation to understanding the Duke’s methods: “it is essential to grasp the elements of this system [commissariat] before considering Wellington’s army.”[7]

It is not that these historians are wrong, but they have missed an important element in the operational art, if that term may be used. Even at the time of Napoleon, war required considerable supplies; shot, powder, shovels, picks, axes, wood, fuel, water and food are the major ones. Oman, Napier and others knew this, as did Piers Mackesy, who wrote in 1959, that: “the War in the Peninsula was to be largely a war of provisions.”[8] More importantly, the British commander knew this and spent considerable time ensuring his army was supplied adequately.

Our understanding of British logistics in the Peninsular, and specifically the provision of grain, can be simplified by dividing the campaign into three periods. The first begins in 1809, when continuous British operations in the Peninsula commenced, until the end of 1810. The second period begins at the end of 1810 when Wellington and Sir Charles Stuart actively sought to increase the import supply of grain, and ends in June 1813, when the American trade licences expired and the restrictions on shipments of grain from Britain terminated. The final period is from June 1813 to the end of the Peninsular War in 1814.[9]

As Redgrave demonstrates in his dissertation on Wellington’s logistics, the first period was “marked by the absence of any large scale importing arrangements.”[10] The army lived off local sources, with few imports and little opportunity to build up stocks.[11] As the campaign progressed, the allied[12] army increased in size, outstripping local sources, and requirements importations of large quantities of food and forage, which in turn resulted in the accumulation of stockpiles and the creation of a transportation system to distribute food. The theatre matured and this is what the second period is noteworthy for, along with the British purchasing more than the allies could have consumed.[13]

Wellington made great efforts to ensure his army was adequately fed and properly supplied, while using hunger as a formidable weapon[14] against his opponent. The resources necessary to feed the Peninsular Army, and the effort to secure them, were staggering. Between 1809 and 1814, the quantity of provisions required more than tripled. By November 1813, the Commissariat was supplying over 100,000 pounds of biscuit, 200,000 lbs of forage and slaughtering 300 head of cattle a day.[15] Quantities such as these could not be satisfied locally, so most of the foodstuffs were brought to the Peninsula by sea, not only from Britain, but further abroad as well.

Napoleon’s Continental System closed access to European markets, forcing British agents to extend their reach to the Barbary Coast, Morocco, the Greek Islands and even America.[16] The latter was a “bountiful source of supply”[17] of grain, or at least remained so, until mid-1813, when changes in British and American policy, the re-opening of other markets and a reduction in prices, ended the American trade.

According to the historian W. Freeman Galpin, American food supplies had long been important to Britain, but this fact  “presented itself for the first time during the Napoleonic era,” and that “in no place was the dependency upon American grain more pronounced than among British forces stationed in Spain and Portugal.”[18] Throughout the summer and fall of 1810 and 1811, unprecedented quantities of American wheat and flour – over one million barrels of flour alone - were shipped to the Peninsula, the greater share destined for the British army operating there.[19] Wellington placed great importance on these supplies and monitored the worsening diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the United States with concern. 

American economic warfare against Britain intensified with the issue of various Orders in Council in 1806 and 1807, which prohibited coastal trade with France and her allies and banned neutrals from trading with ports closed to British vessels. From then, until 1811, a series of legislative acts by the Americans sought to damage the British economy or prompt the revocation of the Orders In Council, but failed to do so. In February 1811, the American Congress again tried to sap British financial resources by passing Plan Four, an irritating non-importation measure which forbade the entry of ships and goods from the British Empire into the United States, while allowing Britain to continue purchasing American produce.[20]

In March 1811, while his army was still behind the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington outlined to Charles Stuart, the British commissioner in Spain, the potential problems this act posed to his army. 

You [HD4]  will observe that the ports of America will have been shut against us on the 1st of February. It is possible, nay, probable, that the grain for which you sent the £400,000 may not have quitted the ports of America at that time, and it is at all events desirable not to neglect any means which can be adopted to secure so desirable an object.[21]

Fortunately for Wellington, President Madison’s economic warfare ignored Britain’s most sensitive target, her army in the Peninsula. The American diplomat, Jonathan Russell, understood this, when he wrote in January 1812, that “this very war [in the Peninsula], which preserves the existence of the present ministry … is fed and pampered by our supplies,” while the son-in-law of the American Secretary of State urged the President that starving the Peninsula was “the most effectual weapon that could be wielded against Great Britain.”[22]    Ironically [HD5]  , when Madison finally chose to follow this advice, it was probably too late.

In April 1812, Congress made the final preparatory move towards war by passing a ninety-day Embargo, halting all exports.[23] Wellington learned of the Embargo in May:  “… I have a paper from America,” he wrote his deputy, Lt Gen Sir Thomas Graham, “from which it appears that the Americans have laid a general embargo on all vessels. This is a measure of importance as all this part of the Peninsula has been living this year on American flour.”[24]

Wellington was left to contemplate whether Portugal could [HD6]  “do without the produce of America?” Tapping other markets was the obvious solution, but only if they could “supply the demands of Portugal for provisions.”[25] Uneasiness over the reliability of supplies led to the Commissary General being ordered, “to take care to keep in his stores a supply to answer the demands upon him for six months.” If “communication with America might be stopped,” the commissariat was to ensure “that the stores should have more than less of this necessary article.” Purchases from Brazil and Egypt would “keep the stores supplied with corn in the event then expected (March 1812) of the stoppage of the intercourse with America …”[26] Reserves were also built up from home, but this source was even unreliable, often as poor weather made shipment difficult,[27] but also due to the government’s decision in November 1811, following the poor harvest of that year, not to export any grain. This policy would remain in effect for 18 months.[28]

High tariffs, the dangers in avoiding the embargo and privateers increased the price of flour and grain in Portugal and Spain to twice that charged in American or British markets. American farmers and merchants clamoured to share in this wealth.[29] The extent of this trade led some merchants to believe Madison would repeal the Non-Importation Act as “the middle states are obtaining very great profit on their flour in Portugal and Spain, which always brings them a great importation of bullion from the British domain.”[30] Madison made no such move and by the spring of 1812 war seemed inevitable. In American ports, a mad scramble ensued as merchants attempted to get one final shipment to sea.[31]

Wellington continued trying to “come to any arrangement with the [Barbary] powers to supply Cadiz, Lisbon, &c., with corn,” and “sent to the Brazils, and to the Mediterranean for corn, and to the British settlements in North America; to the Western Islands, &c. Mexico,” which “ought to be able to supply some.”  He told his brother Henry, it “It would be capital to turn the tables upon these cunning Americans, and not to allow them to have any intercourse with those ports [Cadiz and Lisbon].[32]

Wellington’s wishes aside, the predominance of American trade was clearly established and efforts to secure grain from North Africa were unsuccessful. During 1811, a total of 2,121 vessels[33] entered the port of Lisbon, two-thirds of them arriving before June. One-third of the total, or 797, flew the flag of the United States and most of those, 668, carried grain.[34] Unfortunately details of what the other vessels carried are not available, but it is known that only 46 ships were of Turkish or Moorish origin,[35] but British agents in North Africa continued seeking supplies.

Once the “accounts of the American embargo for three months from the 7th of April” 1812 came in, they revealed the importance of American grain, for “not only Portugal, but the neighbouring provinces of Spain.”  However, Wellington felt “no anxiety respecting the subsistence of the army,” as he had “already adopted some measures with a view to supply the deficiencies which might be generally felt in the markets if the embargo were to continue.[36]

By May 1812, sufficient stocks has been accumulated for Wellington to tell the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, that an “an offer from America to supply us with 60,000 barrels of flour” had been “declined … as there is no want at present.” Wellington still believed the embargo would terminate this trade and “prevent the Americans from bringing their corn to the Lisbon market.”[37]

Contrary to any predictions, the flow of foodstuffs from America into the Peninsula was not abruptly halted following the American declaration of war on 18 June 1812. In reality it grew. American shippers, motivated by profit, were disdainful of the Congressional acts, which they viewed as being “for the Better Encouragement of Roguery and Other Purposes.”[38] The British Consul in Boston found individuals “well inclined towards the British interest,” who were “desirous of sending provision s to Spain and Portugal, for the use of the allied armies.”[39] Experience had shown American shippers that “there existed numerous methods whereby the restrictive features of the measures might be evaded.”[40]

One of these methods was the licensed trade, which was opened to the United States by a British Order in Council of April 1812. Licences were issued for wheat, grain, bread, biscuit, flour, pitch, tar and turpentine,[41] permitting American vessels to conduct their business free of interference from the Royal Navy. In one month alone, 722 licences for shipments to the Peninsula were issued, which also sparked a thriving trade of licences, some of which were used to move goods safely between American ports rather than their intended British destination.[42] Grain princes continued to rise and “American harbours” soon “swarmed with vessels for Spain and Portugal.”[43] Wellington approved of these developments: “I am very glad that Mr. Forster has given licences to American ships to import corn to Lisbon” and he hoped licenses would be issued “to Portuguese ships to do the same from America.”[44] Nonetheless, the government terminated the issue of any new licences on 14 November 1812, although those extant would be honoured until they ran out, about nine months later.[45]

These arrangements could have been complicated by the dreaded privateers, which Wellington expected to appear along his sea lines of communication: “the mouth of the Channel, and the coasts of Portugal and Spain, will swarm with American privateers” he wrote in August 1812.[46] Initial successes by American privateers brought this sharp, and perhaps overstated, rebuke: “Surely the British navy cannot be so hard run so [HD8]  not to be able to keep up the communication with Lisbon for this army!” He also warned of dire consequences if the privateers continued unchecked: “If they only take the ship with our shoes, we must halt for six weeks.”[47]

Despite Wellington’s fears, privateers had no appreciable affect on American exports to Spain and Portugal or the conduct of operations in the Peninsula.[48] The warning by the Commander of the Channel Fleet, Admiral Lord Keith, in 1812 that the “Americans are running in and out [of the Bay of Biscay] like rabbits,”[49] did not translate into significant losses. Why was this?

The Royal Navy provided excellent security along the western and northern coasts of Spain, while escorted convoys, which the Americans failed to disrupt, guarded British supplies.[50] British shipping carried few food imports for the army from the United States,[51] as the ships records for 1811 reveal: only one British merchantman brought American grain to Lisbon that year. American vessels also operated from British ports: 104 of the 457 vessels bringing food from British and Irish ports to the Peninsula in 1811 were American.[52]   The Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, Lieutenant-General Sir John Sherbrooke shrewdly observed in August 1813, that American ships under license were less likely to become privateers; licensed trade “operated more to our security than an additional force of several thousand men.”[53] A greater threat came from French privateers, operating from French ports against the Mediterranean coast of Spain or, after 1810, from ports it had captured there.[54]

The only occasion when privateers could have affected Wellington’s operations was during the summer of 1813, when the army’s advance to the Pyrenees made its dependency upon coastal supply greater than before. Supplies came to Santander on the northern coast of Spain, from various points in the Peninsula and England. [55] The nearly 50 heavily laden British vessels moored there in September 1813 were a profitable target, but for the British, congestion, distribution and abundance were greater problems than American privateers.[56]

In 1812, over 381,000 barrels of flour reached Spain and another 557,000 went to Portugal, meeting immediate needs and also allowing the accumulation of five months stock at Lisbon.[57] The next year, Spain received 430,000 barrels, while shipments to Portugal fell to 542,000,[58] perhaps due to Wellington shifting his line of communication north to Coruńa and Vigo in Spain.[59] Nonetheless, during the first year and a half of the American War, almost two million barrels of grain, representing 60% of the flour sold by the Americans between 1808 and 1813, were received.[60]

Then, during the summer of 1813, several factors combined to almost end this trade. The British licensed trade was over in mid-year, while the American Licence Bill of July 1813 prohibited the use of British licences for American trade. The collapse of the Continental System opened Baltic ports and new sources of grain became available, which Britain immediately sought.[61] Local purchase may have also increased, as northern Spain was more fertile.[62] Such abundance, made plans completed earlier in the year obsolete. For example, the disposal of a large consignment of wheat (18 million pounds or 300,000 bushels) purchased from Egypt in February 1813 became somewhat of an embarrassment when it arrived in Lisbon that August. American deliveries of grain during 1814 fell to a paltry 221 barrels of grain to Spain and just over 41,000 to Portugal.[63]

Thus while the supply of grain from America to the Peninsular Army, could have ended anytime between 1809 and 1812, careful planning by Wellington, the Commissariat and the British government beginning in 1810, ensured that the “British armies in the Peninsula, or elsewhere for that matter, would not be as dependent upon American grain as they had been in the immediate past.”[64] Despite being at war with a major supplier, no critical shortage was ever felt by Wellington’s army. Contrary to claims by some historians that “once Baltic ports were reopened to trade in November 1812 … North American food and ships stores were not so urgently required for the troops in Europe,” American grain shipments to the Peninsula accelerated until June 1813. American diplomatic and economic measures could not compete with the willingness of American agriculturists to sell their produce to Britain.[65]

Licences also kept essential commodities flowing into British colonies in the West Indies and Maritime Canada, even after supplies to the Peninsula ceased.[66] Greed does have its advantages, although former U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson did see an interesting result of this trade: "if we could by starving the British armies, oblige them to withdraw from the peninsular, it would be to send them here; and I think we had better feed them there for pay, than feed and fight them here for nothing."[67]

Could the Americans have endangered Peninsular operations at all? There is no consensus among historians. Oman suggests that the Peninsular Army would have been endangered had war with America broken out before 1812, while G.E. Watson, believing the Americans held all the cards, suggests the United States could have crippled British operations in the Peninsula by cutting off supplies towards the end of 1812 rather than in mid-1813, or it could have continued to drain Britain of specie by selling grain.[68] Oman may be closer to the mark. Importations of grain became important after 1810 and especially after 1811, but by then, British stockpiles were abundant, with the difficulty now laying with distribution than accumulation. Had President Madison acted firmly in 1810-1811, British operations may have been disrupted, but it is unlikely any legislation passed would have been respected or enforceable, particularly in the New England States. As a result, while the American trade was substantial, it never threatened the Peninsular Army.

To be continued …


[1] Donald E. Graves, “Where Right and Glory Lead: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 25 July 1814,” Toronto, 2000, p. 233.

[2] The most glaring example of this phenomenon is David G. Fitz-Enz’s The Final Invasion: Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Victory.” Cooper Square Press, 2001, which continues the long debunked myth that the British suppressed historical records on their Plattsburgh campaign and that most of the troops employed there were Peninsular veterans. Donald R. Hickey’s recent “Don’t Give Up the Shi: Myth’s of the War of 1812,” examines the origins of many of these myths, while a series of essays by Donald E. Graves on the various campaigns has also helps to set the record straight.

[3] An attempt to determine the originator of this quote proved fruitless, although one source did refer to it as “an old Pentagon quip.” Really. Despite the lack of provenance, this quip is well ingrained in military culture and is quoted with little variation. It may indeed be true that historians quote one another.

[4] Martin van Creveld, “Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton,” Cambridge, 1977, p. 2.

[5] Sir Charles Oman, “Wellington’s Army,” 1809 – 1814,” London, 2006, p. 161.

[6] The relevant volumes of Sir John Fortescue’s “History of the British Army” are 6 – 10.

[7] F. Myatt, “The Soldier’s Trade,” London, 1974, p. 180.

[8] Jac Weller, “On Wellington: The Duke and His Art of War,” London, 1998, p. 60.

[9] This is a variation of the time divisions used by Redgrave. p. 53, 57.

[10] Redgrave, p. 53.

[11] Redgrave, p. 58.

[12] The forces under Wellington’s command consisted not only of British regulars, but foreign corps under British pay, various German contingents, Portuguese and Spanish troops.

[13] Redgrave, p. 61.

[14] The best example of Wellington employed starvation as a weapon was in 1810, while withdrawing behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. The territory before this defensive line was stripped of anything, including foodstuffs that could aid the French. See Donald. D. Horward, “The Battle of Bussaco: Masséna vs. Welligton,” Florida State University, 1965.

[15] Weller, “On Wellington,” p. 61.

[16] S.G.P. Ward, “Wellington’s Headquarters,” p. 81.

[17] Ward, p. 94.

[18] W. Freeman Galpin, “The American Grain Trade to the Spanish Peninsula, 1810-1814,” American Historical Review XXVIII, 1923, p. 24-25.

[19] Galpin, p. 25.

[20] Herbert Heaton, “The Erosion of Economic Warfare,” in Bradford Perkins, Ed., “The Causes of the War of 1812,” New York, 1962, p. 42.

[21] Wellington to Stuart, 1 March 1811, John Gurwood, ed., “The Dispatches of Field Marshal, the Duke of Wellington, Volume VII,” London, p. 324. Hereafter cited as “WD” and volume number.

[22] Bradford Perkins, “Road to War, 1805-1812: England and the United States,” p. 382.

[23] Reginald Horsman, “The Causes of the War of 1812,” p. 259.

[24] Wellington to Lt Gen Sir T. Graham, 8 May 1812, WD IX, p. 129-130.

[25] Wellington to Charles Stuart, 25 Oct 1811, WD VII, p. 357.

[26] Wellington to Stuart, 3 May 1812, WD X, p. 342-345.

[27] Ward, p. 94.

[28] Redgrave, p. 57.

[29] Galpin, p. 25.

[30] Galpin, p. 26.

[31] Galpin, p. 26.

[32] Wellington to Sir Henry Wellesley, 10 May 1812, WD IX, p. 132-133.

[33] G.E. Watson, “The United States and the Peninsular War, 1808 – 1812,” in The Historical Journal, Volume 19, No. 4., 1976, p. 870.

[34] Watson, p. 871.

[35] Redgrave, p. 59n27.

[36] Wellington to Liverpool, 12 May 1812, WD IX, p. 137-140.

[37] Wellington to Liverpool, 12 May 1812, WD IX, p. 137-140.

[38] Herbert Heaton, “The Erosion of Economic Warfare,” in Perkins, p. 44

[39] Licence Issued 4 August 1812, reprinted in Hitsman, p. 55.

[40] Galpin, p. 27.

[41] Faye Margaret Kert, “Prize and Prejudice: Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada During the War of 1812,” St John’s, p. 24.

[42] Kert, p. 28.

[43] Galpin, p. 27-28.

[44] Wellington to Stuart, 4 Sep 1812, WD IX, p. 394-395.

[45] Redgrave, p. 61.

[46] Wellington to Charles Stuart, 11 Aug 1812, WD IX, p. 349.

[47] Forester “Age of Sail,” p. 90

[48] Christopher D. Hall, “Wellington’s Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War, 1807 – 1814,” Chatham, p. 125.

[49] Quoted in Watson, p. 875.

[50] Hall, p. 124, 125 – 126.

[51] Redgrave, p. 27.

[52] Watson, p. 871.

[53] Sherbrooke was speaking of American trade to Nova Scotia, but the same was likely true for shipments to the Peninsula. See Kert, p. 30.

[54] Hall, p. 126.

[55] Redgrave, p. 27n11.

[56] Watson, p. 875.

[57] Redgrave, p. 28.

[58] Galpin, p. 25n.

[59] Weller, p. 66.

[60] Galpin, p. 25n5.

[61] Professor H. Heaton, “The American Trade,” in C. Northcote Parkinson, Ed., “The Trade Winds: A Study of British Overseas Trading During the French Wars, 1793 – 1815,” London, 1948, p. 226.

[62] Watson makes this point in his “United States and the Peninsular War,” p. 875, but no evidence has come to light of this being a factor in the grain trade.

[63] Galpin, p. 40, 41, 43-44.

[64] Galpin, p. 43.

[65] Galpin, p. 44.

[66] Hitsman, p. 109; Kert, p. 30.

[67] President Jefferson on the trade with Britain, source TBC.

[68] G.E. Watson, “The United States and the Peninsular War,” Historical Journal, December 1976.


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