Military Subjects:  War of 1812

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 15: May 2011


By John R. Grodzinski, PhD

This issue of the War of 1812 Magazine is late. A winter issue had been planned, but for myriad reasons, it proved impossible to publish it. I apologize to our readers for the delay and promise that we will maintain a regular publication schedule of three issues per year.

1811 … Two hundred years ago, as the Napoleonic War continued in Europe and around the globe, the probability of a war between Great Britain and the United States increased. As British and French land forces campaigned in Spain, at the Lines of Torres Vedras, Fuentes de Oňoro, the first two sieges of Badajoz and the epic struggle at Albuera, the Royal Navy tightened its blockade of Europe and achieved an impressive victory at Lissa in the Adriatic, a setback off Madagascar and the capture of Java.

An interesting minor naval conflict also continued between Britain and Denmark. The conflict stemmed from British policy in the Baltic and the attacks made against Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807.  The Danes relied upon a flotilla of fast and manoeuvrable gunboats and several brigs to interdict British commerce moving through the confines of the Little Belt, the passage between Danish Jutland and Saelland Island. The Danes captured or seriously damaged several British brigs and sloops and their greatest success came in July 1810, when five brigs took an entire convoy of 47 sail. In 1811, three British ships of the line, escorting a homeward bound convoy, were wrecked with the loss of 2,000 men–four times the number killed at Trafalgar. The achievements of the small and aggressive Danish navy were limited, but revealed several weaknesses in the Royal Navy; Danish successes also have been overshadowed by the more sensationalized naval encounters of the War of 1812. Despite the popular perception that Trafalgar gave Britain mastery of the seas, the Royal Navy would remain busy until the end of 1813, when the first reductions to its strength began in anticipation of the Napoleonic War  coming to a close.

As these events unfolded, relations between America and Britain worsened. On 1 May 1811, HMS  Guerrière (38 guns) stopped an American coastal vessel and impressed one of its crew; almost two weeks later on May 16, USS President (44 guns) mistook the much smaller 20-gun HMS Little Belt for the frigate Guerrière, battering it into submission, killing nine and wounding 23 of its crew.

By this time, President James Madison had concluded that war was the only option left to the United States, while in British North America, Governor General James Craig’s health continued to decline and in May, the British government announced he would be replaced by Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, currently the lieutenant-governor and commander of the forces in the colony of Nova Scotia. Prevost, his family and staff departed Halifax aboard the frigate HMS Melampus and arrived in Quebec on 13 September 1811, the anniversary of the 1759 battle. Lady Prevost noted in her diary that this was “an auspicious omen.”[1]

Over the next 10 months Prevost would prepare the Canadas for the coming war; indeed while the new governor was cautioned by the Prince Regent to avoid an incident that might provoke war, he oversaw military, fiscal and legislative steps that readied Upper and Lower Canada for war, more so than the United States, which relied on an aggressive foreign policy and the belief that Britain’s focus with European affairs would simplify any attempt to strike at Canada rather than in readying its forces and developing strategies to achieve their political aims.

These last few months of peace were tumultuous ones that ended with the American declaration of war in June 1812.

Enjoy this issue of the War of 1812 Magazine.


[1] Diary of Ann Elinor Prevost, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), MG 24 A9, 54.

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